That Awkward Moment

Sometimes I am seriously doubting whether studying Anthropology actually was a good decision. Sometimes in this case means every single time I am heading for an interview. I just can’t stop feeling unqualified, I always worry whether I’ll be asking the right questions, and I’m literally praying there won’t be too many moments of awkward silence – still being an atheist, that is. Every single time, I’m sweating more than I would on an entire day at the Caribbean. While other colleagues have told me they’re embarrassed by how much they speak themselves during an interview when they transcribe the audio file, I am more often than not worried about how to keep things going.

Every time I read texts on interviewing methodology, I cringe at the part that says one should try to make the interviewee feel comfortable. How in the world am I supposed to make people feel comfortable in a situation that is not comfortable at all, not even for me who I am supposed to be in charge of it?! I am clearly no small talk genius, and apparently worse so under pressure. Not that I would get into embarrassing moments by talking about inappropriate things, or something like that. You could at least call this a talent for ice-breaking, if you want. I am more the kind of person who becomes utterly aware of her social awkwardness around people I do not know.

So how do I go about these situations? There is of course no one-size-fits-all solution for interviews. What works will always depend on what you want, the topic you’re working on, the people you’re working with, etc. But at least for me, there are a few steps that help me deal with the awkwardness of the situation. First of all, I keep a list in my head of possible small talk topics. In Bogotá, these include weather (has been to dry, has been to wet for the season…), traffic (a sure bet: everybody here can relate to stories about traffic jam), personal security (taking a cab on the street vs. calling it; stories of people getting robbed; measures I take to keep safe…), cultural differences between Germany and Colombia (People love to hear these! My current favorites include social security issues, openness to foreigners, and food.). Also nice are taxi drivers (driving style, music selection, overall personality…). Plus, one can always try out topics with them, and then add them to the list.

Even though there’s a saying that one should avoid speaking about religion or politics (at the table), I have generally made good experiences with these two topics. They lead you to “the important stuff” quite directly. While among friends, there might be benefits in avoiding “problematic” – that is, potentially discussion worthy topics – in an interviewing context, I find it quite useful to create situations that call for disagreement. I have sometimes openly argued with people during an interview. Of course, one always needs a certain sensibility for those situations, and a certain level of trust that will enable further meetings. Not to mention the obvious: respect and authenticity.

I often tell people that I am uncomfortable doing interviews, because it takes pressure off of me, and I like to believe from the interviewees as well, because then they don’t have to feel weird all by themselves. My impression is that it works well. Also, I almost never do a recorded interview the first time I meet someone. (Unless it is a professional/expert on something I am unlikely to ever see again.) On this very first session, I usually present my project and myself, and try to answer my interviewees questions about both. Then, I’ll try find a date and place. I don’t have timely preferences other than it not being before 8am or after 10pm. You do not want to get to know me before 8am – I speak even less… And after 10pm I just can’t guarantee I will do you justice. I can afford these frames because I work with people who have similar preferences, otherwise this would be yet another reason of questioning why I am doing this in the first place.

When it comes to selecting the location, the interviewees home is always my first choice. They will most likely feel comfortable there, and it usually offers some quiet. (Again, I have the luxurious situation that I work with people whose homes offer these qualifications.) Other than that, drinks and/or food are always helpful. While this is another area of possible pitfalls (disrespecting rules, taboos or tastes…) I find nothing more satisfying than being able to take a sip while thinking about the next question, or leaving some space for your interviewee to think about an answer while you just bite into a piece of pastry. The same might work for you interviewee. Also, I like to think this might be an option for people who generally talk too much during interviews. Next time you’re afraid of interrupting someone, just fill your mouth so you can’t ask that question in your head immediately.

And then, there is trust. You don’t build that in a day or two, so be prepared to invest into the relationship. Wether that involves time, skills, stories or even money depends on whom you’re dealing with. My experience is that people open up to me the more they know about me. So I speak freely about my family, my education, my hopes, dreams and political views. Furthermore, meeting people on a regular basis will allow you to normalize the situation. So does sharing skills and knowledge. Taking part in common activities, making contributions to shared meals, helping to find solutions to problems are the kind of soft skills that help thicken the bond. Also, finding out things you have in common will help people identify with you. Risking to state the obvious: You will have to go beyond the list for small talk here.

In general, when I follow through with this, I can somewhat tackle my anxiety concerning interviews. For the most part, I come home happy and relieved, and much more confident about my work. When I am able to normalize the relationship to the people I am interviewing, I can sometimes create interview spaces that do not differ that much from a good talk to a friend. It is those moments of trust when people speak to me about their feelings, hopes and dreams, sometimes share their fear or secrets, and when I feel a genuine interest for the person, and not just the information contained in their answers they give to my questions, that I know again why I got into Anthropology.

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