When I started this journey and several dozen times along the way I have gotten this question: “Couldn’t you just email questions to the people you want to include?” Or “Couldn’t you just call or Skype with them?” Or more bluntly (and rarer): “It isn’t really necessary for you to go there, is it?”
The answer is no. Maybe someone else could just email or just phone, or just Facetime. I could not. For me to do this project in the most fulfilling way possible I needed to travel to meet with people in-person. To put myself completely and fully into each meeting like it was the most important thing in the world because — to me, this project, and in that moment — it was.
I trust in the research suggesting that there is something important to being in the same place and time for improving communication and creating greater conversational intimacy. For a journey in which I hoped to speak to people about their lives, or rather, how the lives they’ve led manifest into the contributions they’ve made to Psychology, I think that intimacy was critical. I wanted a means to build trust. I wanted to see the more subtle movements in a person’s face and body movements. I wanted to notice the little trinkets and art that might adorn their offices. I wanted to look across the hall to see the office mates and neighbors inhabiting their daily lives. To see their universities and learn about the places and culture in which they devoted countless hours of their lives.
I spent some time speaking with the wonderful journalism Profs at William Paterson University (my home institution) prior to starting this journey. I asked them about protocols for reaching out to people. How to effectively navigate any relevant privacy and ownership laws for the material I was to generate. They further gave me insights into interviewing techniques and communication strategies. And they asked, couldn’t you just call them?
Doing this project in this way required a lot of sacrifices. We had sold our house. That sometimes draws gasps so I’ll pause for effect. In retrospect it doesn’t seem like a tremendous sacrifice for reasons I won’t go into, but it was certainly not without effort. Importantly it would not have been possible for us to afford to travel as we did and pay a mortgage and New Jersey property taxes. Wherever we were, we lived there and that was our rent-mortgage-bill for that stay. Not unrelated is that I requested a full-year of sabbatical which came with a significant pay cut. So lots of financial sacrifice for us to consider.
We had to leave behind most of our possessions and lock them into storage. I hope they are still there, intact, and unspoiled by moths, water damage, or natural disasters.
We had to say goodbye to friends and colleagues whose lives would continue (and in some cases end) without our involvement. Yes, we knew we would come back, and yes it is only a year, but being gone for an extended period of time necessitates missing out on a big chunk of their lives. There was uncertainty and with uncertainty anxiety about whether doing this was really the best decision.
So… why not email?
I love reading autobiographies — people are endlessly fascinating and everyone has great stories of their lives! But when I read about peoples lives inevitably I have more questions. Why did you choose to do things in that way? Why did you describe it using those word? Hidden behind the things people opt to say (or write) is an infinity of other possibilities. A multiverse. Emails are not always concise but they are always crafted. The writing process changes one’s perspective and, while revealing a lot, also leaves much to the imagination. So not email. That wasn’t the right medium for this project as it diminishes the capacity for exploration and deeper understanding that can be had in conversation.
Why not phone?
To answer this let’s reflect for a moment on the psychological research about why cell-phones (even hands-free units) are problematic for drivers. When traffic demands are heavy, a person sitting next to a driver reacts and modulates the conversation to accommodate the focus of the increase in cognitive load required for safety. But someone on the phone doesn’t do that. The person on the phone has no idea what a person is looking at and what is occupying their mind. There is no shared perspective through a phone. Especially during a conversation with a stranger the opportunity for involvement in distracting background tasks, or for checking email, or for playing Words with Friends, can easily take precedence.
While phones can be great when there is an established rapport they did not seem right for this project.
So… Video chat?
I am not aware of the research background that might help to clarify video chat interactions for the aims of this project. Modern day engineers have created the capacity to use video chat for all kinds of meaningful interactions (from musicians practicing together in remote studios to psychotherapy between a clinician on earth to an astronaut in orbit). Maybe this is personal, but when I speak on video chat I often find myself focusing on stupid, irrelevant details. Where do I need to maintain my gaze: at the camera or eyes from the image of the other person? Does my image look okay or does that angle create an unfortunate shadow? Do I need to maintain a smile the whole time? Will I see the the play of ideas and emotions on their face? While I feel like a Luddite for expressing this bias, video chat, by way of including that inane self-image in the screen, seems to both encourage interaction and self-involvement. It is a wonderful technology but it didn’t feel right for this project.
Then there’s the other stuff I mentioned above. The opportunity for being involved in a person’s regional, institutional, and personal context. A chance to have a relaxed and intimate atmosphere that is established by personal contact. No fake smiles, no waving statements with grunts and snorts in place of silence on the phone to avoid challenging topics, but real empathy. For me that involves being there to see and learn about the person and, of course, doing deep background research prior to speaking with someone.
At the end of the day, though, there is also something else. There is my own longing to do this adventure with my family. Prior to this trip we were avid travelers — saving up and going to visit places locally and across all of the continents except Antarctica (because there are no people there so what’s the point?). This year has been exceptional. Not only have we traveled nearly 50,000 miles/80,000 km across 4 continents, but we did this together. Typically I put in countless hours at my office endeavoring to fulfill my institutional and professional obligations. My family, much the same, has their important commitments and schedules. In our typical approach, the time we spend with each other is luxury to be scheduled contingent on the other commitments we’ve made.
This year that pattern is reversed. We have traveled together. We have adventured together. We have more time, more experience, more sharing than we’ve had at any other time of our lives. I love the adventure but more than that I love that it was something for us to share. I don’t know if we will ever have a year like this again, but getting this opportunity was precious.
So while technology might enable cheaper and more efficient ways to create this intellectual journey, we undertook it as a physical journey. I have literally worn down the soles of my shoes, torn through socks, and walked through the campus gates to Harvard University, University of Cambridge, Macquarie University, Oxford University, McGill University, Stanford University, Washington University and so many more in pursuit of this project. I hope that the book that ensues will justify the extra effort.
(Photo of an exhibit in Glasgow with the many heads of emotion. Maybe you had to be there to really get it.)