Ever since I started doing interviews for research, I’ve been recording them. Ironically, the most interesting things people say are quite often, off the record. They tend to drop juicy nuggets of information or opinion before I press that red “record” button, and after I turn it off.
There is something about your words being recorded, and possibly heard by other people, that makes an interviewee tighten up and watch their words. People in the public eye – company directors, former politicians, activists – seem more comfortable with the recorder. It’s not that they are more open, just that they’re just used to it. These people tend to be cautious all the time, and generally don’t say anything which is not already publicly known.
Ordinary people struggle a bit more with this. They worry that what they say may hurt, offended, or change the way others perceive them. And it is a legitimate worry if they are talking about people who they continue to live and work with. At the same time most people, want to tell their side of the story, their unique perspective on things.
So what often happens is that they will say all the niceties on record, like how great this person is etc. But after the interview is officially over, they’ll modify their earlier statements by revealing what that “great” person is in real life. I’ve learnt so much about internal conflicts, arguments and even some scandals from “off the record” remarks.
But the sad thing is that all this exciting information is absent from the recording and the written record. Once I was researching the development of a certain government ministry and tracing a sudden change in a policy. Most interviewees gave oblique answers to my direct questions, but I finally figured out it changed because of a change in leadership. No one would give me a name until I finally interviewed a retired officer who told me the person’s name after the interview was over. I counter-checked it with some official records and knew it was correct. I was proud of my investigative prowess but at the end of the day, no one would give the name on record, so it was left off the final report I submitted.
Some time back, I was speaking to a researcher who had his own take on the issue. He doesn’t use a recorder, and doesn’t take notes. He hangs out with his interviewees/informants and has conversations with them over coffee. He says his interviewees have no trouble speaking freely and sharing all their thoughts with him. “But then how do you write it up? How do you share the information?” I asked. I think he laughed, and said something like, “I don’t!”
Although one cannot publish the off the record comments, I guess it does enrich the interviewer’s understanding of a subject and the interviewee’s way of thinking. Sometimes these comments also lead to other pieces of information that can be referenced and written about. But still whenever I write a interview summary, I wish that I could include all those juicy “off the record” statements.