When we started writing this piece about how our jobs influence the rest of our lives, we knew that we wanted to interview people of all sorts of backgrounds. We just didn’t realize how difficult that would be.
We made a dream list. Men and women. College age people, those in their 80's, and everyone in between. People of different faiths. First and second generation immigrants. Middle class Americans and those earning minimum wage. People who lived in cities and those who lived in small towns. White, black, Latino and Asian individuals.
With our list in hand, we reached out to our inner circles and canvassed for anyone that might be interested in participating. Then our circles began reaching out to their circles. Word spread. We had a solid start with fifteen interviewees, but after a month, we hit a wall. Our first responders, while diverse in their professions, experiences and personal stories, looked a lot like one another.
So we started contacting professional groups for minorities, faith-based organizations, advocacy groups for at-home parents, recreational groups for seniors and nursing homes, groups for people who loved the outdoors, farming associations, and groups advocating for wage increases. We used Meetup Groups, Facebook, Twitter, and email to contact more than 125 organizations nationally, being careful to target rural communities alongside those in big cities. One by one, over four months, we followed each thread, securing interviews in person, by phone, and by Skype until we had forty people willing to participate. We didn’t reach every voice on our wish list, but we got 80 percent of the way there. In some ways, the voices we never reached and why is a story all its own.
Here are four things we learned – about others and ourselves – while searching for interviewees.
1. Socioeconomic lines are the toughest to cross.
The magic formula: Identifiable + Approachable + Willing = Interviewed. First, there has to be a place where a group of people who represent whatever unique characteristic you are looking to capture gather, online or in person. Once you find where they are, you have to be able to approach them. This means both that there is a means of contact (email, phone number, or a place to physically go), and that it is appropriate to show up. Lastly, if the first two are achievable, individuals have to be willing to participate.
As hard as it can be to start a conversation across racial and religious lines, there were places where we could readily identify people by both race and religion, and critically where people self-identified by these characteristics as a point of pride, something that proved critical in a person’s willingness to participate. There were a large number of groups for minority professionals and minority students, and there were both places of worship and social meetups for people of faith that were easily identifiable online. There was almost always a phone number or email address for a contact person, and critically, the contact person was usually a member of whatever community we were trying to reach. When we approached these groups, some were willing to participate and some weren’t.
But following this formula, we struggled to reach people earning minimum wage. We realized that people in these professions were primarily identifiable only in two places – their place of employment, where it was completely inappropriate to approach them, and through organizations that provide services to low-income individuals or advocate for higher minimum wages, where the contact person was not representative of the population itself and rarely would pass along our information. On the rare occasion that we identified and approached someone, there were natural fears about why we wanted his/her story, or difficulty scheduling a time to talk.
This process underscored what we already knew. As humans, it is incredibly hard to connect in a social way with people across socioeconomic lines. As storytellers, this is one of a thousand reasons why certain voices seem perpetually underrepresented in art.
2. Talking to someone in person is better for connection, but online outreach is more effective for establishing first contact (aka randomly bombarding people at shopping malls is not easy).
In order to reach a broad cross section of people, we spent a day “guerrilla interviewing” at a local shopping mall food court, walking up to strangers and asking them if we could talk to them about their jobs. We didn’t expect that everyone would say yes – but we naively thought that because we weren’t selling anything or asking for donations, that people would be curious and join in. Wrong.
We encountered fear, annoyance, language barriers, men who engaged with us for all the wrong reasons, and one woman who kept insisting that if we were really playwrights, we’d have something on stage right now. We experienced firsthand what it feels like to walk toward a stranger to talk to them about a cause that matters to you, and see them look away, squirm uncomfortably in their seat or get up and walk away. We realized quickly that most people have their “no” response ready long before they hear what you have to say.
We have a whole new respect for anyone whose job involves cold calling or approaching strangers in public for sales or donations. Every time we’ve passed someone on the street since trying to talk to us about the environment or their cause, we smile and nod and wonder how they do it day in and day out. And as two people who aren’t wild about the ways modern technology have eroded in person connection, we had a moment of gratitude for all the ways technology made our interviews possible. But it was also a sad reminder of how hard it is to connect in person with strangers when many people are suspicious and prefer to be left alone.
3. Not everyone is in the middle of an existential crisis.
It’s no secret that part of the reason we started writing this play was because, at 30 years old, we were each trying to figure out what our jobs meant in our lives – whether we are what we do, and how work has affected our sense of self-worth and belonging in our communities. It was fueled by a years’ worth of conversations with each other and a lot of friends who were asking the same questions.
Many of our interviews lasted 45 to 90 minutes as people shared so much beyond the thirteen questions we asked. Their struggles may or may not have been our particular struggles, but they were struggling none the less. We nodded along thinking, “Yeah, finding your place in the world and finding any balance is really tough.”
But then we had many interviews that lasted 10 to 15 minutes. We asked questions about work and people answered in such a straightforward way. The first time it happened, we thought we’d failed as interviewers – that we hadn’t created a supportive place to share. But the more people who told us that they go to work, leave at the end of the day and don't really think much about it in the larger realm of their life, the more we realized that not everyone is in the middle of an existential crisis. We were so grateful for this perspective, and it is essential to the play as a whole.
4. We all carry stereotypes with us, in everything we do.
If we are truly honest with ourselves, everyone walks into every situation with the skewed perspective of their own life experiences. And when we started looking for interviewees, we had ideas about things we expected to hear and wanted to make sure we heard. And during this process, we were reminded over and over and over again to check all stereotypes at the door.
We were expecting an 80 year-old man to tell us he felt invisible, that the world had forgotten him, not that his best work was being done now. We were expecting an at-home mom to talk about the struggle for parenthood to be validated alongside work outside the home, and instead she wanted to talk about the things she does in her life that don’t involve her child. One by one, each interviewee turned our preconceived notions on their head. We began to wonder, are we just finding all the outliers? Or is this process further proof that each human being has a completely unique story that doesn't fit into a premade box? Maybe we are biased, but we think it’s evidence that in fact, in some way, we are all Visitors.