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On Just Being Yourself

In 1964, when we were working on the island of Kalymnos, my wife Carole would take our 2-month-old baby for daily walks in a carriage. Older women would peek into the baby carriage and make disapproving noises when they saw our daughter sleeping on her stomach. Then they would reach into the carriage and turn the baby over, explaining forcefully that the baby would get the evil eye if we continued to let her sleep on her stomach.

Carole had read the latest edition of The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care (the classic ‘‘baby book’’ by Dr. Benjamin Spock). We carried two copies of the book with us—in case one fell out of a boat or something—and Carole was convinced by Dr. Spock’s writings that babies who sleep on their backs risk choking on their own mucous or vomit. Since then, medical opinion—and all the baby books that young parents read nowadays— have flip-flopped about this issue several times. At the time, though, not wanting to offend anyone, Carole listened politely and tried to act nonjudgmental.

One day, enough was enough. Carole told off a woman who intervened and that was that. From then on, women were more eager to discuss child-rearing practices in general. When we let our baby crawl around on the floor and didn’t bundle her up when we took her out for walks, Greek mothers were unhesitant in telling us that they disapproved. The more we challenged them, the more they challenged us. There was no rancor involved, and we learned a lot more than if Carole had just kept on listening politely and had said nothing. This was informal interviewing in the context of long-term participant observation. If we had offended anyone, there would have been time and opportunity to make amends—or at least come to an understanding about cultural differences.

Little Things Mean a Lot

Little things are important in interviewing, so pay attention to them. How you dress and where you hold an interview, for example, tell your respondent a lot about you and what you expect. The “interviewing dress code’’ is: Use common sense. Proper dress depends on the venue. Showing up with a backpack or an attache case, wearing jeans or a business suit—these are choices that should be pretty easy to make once you’ve made the commitment to accommodate your dress to different circumstances.

Same goes for venue. I’ve held interviews in bars, in business offices, in government offices, on ferry boats, on beaches, in homes. ... I can’t give you a rule for selecting the single right place for an interview, since there may be several right places. But some places are just plain wrong for certain interviews. Here again, common sense goes a long way (Further Reading: interviewing).

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