Right at the beginning of my interview phase of my dissertation work, I read this helpful series of tips on interviewing for introverts. I definitely qualify as an introvert, although I am not entirely graceless in social situations.* The thing about doing interviews and having any prolonged social interaction is that it exhausts me, and I find myself having trouble keeping up with my interviewees.
In fact, I’m completely unused to guiding a conversation in most scenarios, except for in the classroom.** I was fortunate enough in this project that the people I was interviewing already knew me — some of them very well — so we didn’t have to get over the social awkwardness of “omg new people”. However, changing our participation styles really had an effect — they were used to hearing me talk about transmog gear, give raid instructions, or make silly jokes, not asking them probing questions. So, in case others find themselves in a similar situation, here are some more tips that I’ve learned from doing interviews in a deeply participation-observation ethnographic study:
- Make sure to tell your interviewee that you might ask questions that sound really obvious. This is one of the things that has saved me in my interviews, because often times I ask questions that I very well know the answers to. In fact, one of my early participants was like, “Dude, I’ve heard you do this thing before, why are you asking this question.” From then on, I told my interviewees that the answers may sound obvious, but I want to hear their perspective on things. If that didn’t work, I told them to pretend I was a noob.***
- Don’t be afraid to identify with your interviewee. One of the things I learned from reading about autoethnography is that sometimes people won’t tell their really powerful, awesome stories to an outsider. If you’re doing a participant-observation ethnography, don’t be afraid to say “I’ve had things like this happen to me, what about you?” This can help people open up, even if you’re already an insider — it gives them a sense of identification and helps you get back to those other kinds of conversations they’re used to.
- Don’t make your questions too long, but also don’t make them too vague. I had trouble with this question: “Have you ever known someone who was deceptive in the game?” Oh man. Nobody knew what I was talking about. What I wanted to get at was, has someone ever passed themselves off as being something that they weren’t? I was hoping to get at stories about guys pretending to be girls in online environments, but this isn’t the first thing that comes to most people’s mind. I heard about people saying they were a good tank but really being bad at it, or ninja looters — these things weren’t at all what I was going for. I reframed the question as “I wonder if you’ve ever had an experience, or heard from someone else, about someone trying to pass themselves off as someone they weren’t? Whether it’s age, or gender, or something else like that?” This got the responses I was looking for.
- If you are doing a participant-observation ethnography, chances are you remember specific incidents or people that you want to ask about. Ask about them specifically. I’ve gotten the best responses when I’ve said “Remember Player X? What did you think about the way they did [whatever]?” Or, in some cases, I can ask “I remember this time that Player A did this thing to Player B. Do you remember that? I don’t think I have the whole story, could you tell me what you know?” Those were the best ones by far.
- Take notes. I cannot stress this enough. I have this nifty notebook given to me ages ago by Sarah in which I keep notes on all of my interviews. Jotting down topics and interesting ideas can help you keep track of the flow of conversation. A couple of times I had this moment of “crap! I had a really great question I wanted to ask and I can’t remember it!” — looking back at my notes from just a moment before helped overcome that memory lapse.