Before “the great pause” resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to spend a lot of time on airplanes. It’s strange to talk about now, but we all know what that was like. Row upon row of seats. Only one of which was yours. Every human traveling to a different place for a different reason. Like ping-pong balls moving across America. You find yourself sitting next to anyone.
I keep thinking back to one particularly interesting flight I was on in the mid-2000s. I was living in Chicago and traveling to Houston. An early morning trip to start the week.
I boarded the plane and headed to my assigned row. Once I arrived, there was a woman sitting at the window. She was around my age and casually dressed. She was well put together. We made brief eye contact and had a pleasant nod of acknowledgement. I grabbed my seat.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
“Houston,” I answered, knowing that the answer wasn’t always obvious on a hub-to-hub flight. “How about yourself?”
“Oh, I don’t know where I’m off to.”
Fine. I’ll bite. As all moderators know, a response like that is a license to probe deeper. I looked up from my airplane magazine with a curious gaze.
“I’m on the way to a reverse surprise party,” she said.
“A reverse surprise party?”
She began to describe her situation to me.
It turned out that several years before, when she was in college, she was part of a group of close friends. Two of those friends were dating and eventually got married. Every year, the wife would throw the husband a surprise party attended by all of their close friends. As time went on, the married couple became quite wealthy and moved to Texas. The husband had lost interest in having surprises thrown for himself but got the novel idea that they could invite all their old college friends down to their place in Texas and throw a surprise for them.
A reverse surprise party. Every year on that specific week, all of the old friends were sent a packing list and instructed to head to Houston where they would embark on an adventure.
She showed me the list and I briefly scanned it; three blue outfits, running shoes, goggles, and a passport were all on it.
“Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Two years ago, we arrived, got into a private jet, and found ourselves on a boat in the Amazon.”
What Is It about Air Travel?
I ended up getting off that flight and entertaining the idea of writing a book called People I’ve Met on Planes because, while this conversation was compelling, it was just one of a number of interesting stories that I have heard while traveling.
On planes, people seem to talk freely about their dire and unbelievably lucrative financial matters with complete strangers. They will also divulge health concerns and infidelities.
What is it about sitting beside a stranger on a plane? What is it that makes people so open to revealing personal details in this particular environment? What are the specific factors there that make initiating a conversation easier? And why is this different than other situations, such as a doctor’s waiting room?
These are all questions I asked myself after that flight, and the answer is extremely relevant for qualitative research. Sitting on an airplane is a place where you are subject to a multitude of experiences.
- You are on the same timeline. You are both in a unique environment where your start and stop times are dictated by the timing of the flight. Your calendars match exactly for a brief time.
- You are facing the same direction. There is a subtle benefit to being situated in a unified way as opposed to being across from one another.
- You are experiencing the same things. The plane goes up or down and you each feel the change at the exact same time. In that moment, what affects one of you will affect both of you.
- You are both in the sky. There’s nowhere more awe-inspiring than being in the air. It’s a surreal experience that quite literally suspends disbelief and disarms.
- You have the equal opportunity for deception. Perhaps this is the most relevant. On an airplane, you have the chance to be in intimate quarters with someone for a set limited amount of time, after which, the chances of your paths crossing again unexpectedly can be zero. It is one of those rare places where you both have the chance to explain to someone how you’re a spy, but also can never be fact-checked.
The unique and sometimes awe-inspiring elements of air travel give people not only a reason to talk to one another but also a reason to focus on other things besides the conversation.
If you were to have a conversation with another person and were asked to stare directly into that person’s eyes for the entirety of the conversation, it would be an incredibly difficult and unnatural experience. But if you were asked to close your eyes, and your mind was allowed to wander, the conversation would flow more naturally.
We like to have the opportunity to focus on other things. It is always easier and more natural to have a genuine interaction when focus is not absolute.
There are many examples of this besides airplanes:
Dog parks. There is something easy about conversing with your neighbors in an enclosed space full of animals. There is lot going on and much to look at. Some of the greatest (non-dog-related) conversations I have had with others have been in dog parks. The environment allows people to open up and allows them to break focus when needed and then reengage in an entirely natural way.
The movies. Granted, this year’s events have made the idea of movie theatres a dated proposition. But how many of us had our first dates at the movies? It has been a solid part of our culture. Going out on a Saturday night with friends often started by going to watch a film. The small conversations that occur between previews and the shared emotional reactions to circumstances on screen are the building blocks of memories.
Restaurants. The perfect place for a conversation to develop is often situated in a space where food is served. The ambiance of the environment, the lighting, the music, the intermittent pauses all help facilitate interpersonal interactions.
Bars. It does not make immediate sense why people like to have conversations and interact while intoxicated in a dimly-lit environment where they often cannot hear what others are saying, yet it works. The constant distraction of the surroundings mixes well with the elixir of the moment to create a natural vibe for schmoozing.
Coffee shops. When Starbucks discovered that people needed a “third space” to interact, the company became more than a simple coffee provider. As a brand, Starbucks hits all the right notes in creating (and replicating) a warm and relaxed environment for conversations to occur.
Concerts. Why do people want to attend live music events with others? Engaging in a shared experience is a springboard to tighter connection.
The Underlying Psychology
In psychology, there is the concept of triangulation. According to Wikipedia, “Triangulation is a manipulation tactic where one person will not communicate directly with another person, instead using a third person to relay communication to the second, thus forming a triangle. It is also a form of splitting in which one person manipulates a relationship between two parties by controlling communication between them. Triangulation may manifest itself as a manipulative device to engineer rivalry between two people, known as (1) divide and conquer or (2) playing one (person) against another.”
Both of these elements are of note for qualitative researchers. It is a field of study worth having a look at, as it can help us form warmer connections with our participants. Other academic fields love incorporating triangulation. It is a fundamental part of land surveying. In economics, it is a core element of triangular currency arbitrage. In chess, there are triangulation theories around protecting the king from certain defeat.
In urban planning circles, triangulation has been incorporated in developing public exhibits that create immediate interaction moments. The well-known “Play Me, I’m Yours” exhibit places locally decorated upright pianos in community spaces and invites the public to engage with, activate, and take ownership of their urban environment. The exhibit’s mission statement reads, “Our street pianos create a place for exchange and an opportunity for people to connect.” It is a brilliant way of facilitating interactions while simultaneously allowing participants and viewers to share their love of music and the visual arts.
Avoiding the Perverse Triangle
Not all triangles are beneficial to interaction. As qualitative researchers, we must be cognizant of “the perverse triangle.” We want to avoid pathological relationship structures between three persons where two of them inadvertently appear to be on different hierarchical levels and thereby form a coalition against the third.
Conducting an in-home interview with a videographer presents a prime example of how triangulation can work for or against us. There is nothing more awkward than asking videographers to be “flies on the wall.” Everyone knows they are there. You want to tread carefully when introducing others as non-playable characters. If you don’t acknowledge everyone’s presence, it has the danger of creating a power dynamic that can mimic the perverse triangle.
In our fieldwork, we have found a significant benefit in actively incorporating the videographer into the conversation. We “kibbitz” around with each other. We break the fourth wall. We act naturally in front of the respondent. We do not pretend that they are not there. It allows us to create a naturally warm environment for the respondent to interact in, and any specific elements that involve our team can be removed in the edit.
Breaking Down the Glass and Other Bad Habits
We have become trained to use the focus group room mirror as a crutch. It is a dangerous scenario because having people behind a glass wall creates a feeling of unease, both among respondents and clients. The respondents know that someone on a “research team” is behind the glass watching everything. The clients fear that the respondents can see the light of their computer monitors flicker behind the glass.
Have you ever seen the awkward interaction between a client and a participant in the hallway after a focus group? We always encourage our clients to not sit in the back room but rather come into the focus group room even if they do not need to ask questions.
Seeing the clients allows participants to move past the curiosity about what they may look like and do during the discussion. It allows a more natural experience for all parties. Our clients have been extremely happy with the exposure and have found it to be natural and seamless. It promotes better listening and reassures participants that there are no secrets.
Changing locations. Conducting a two-hour interview in one spot often only makes sense from an interviewer convenience point-of-view. A change of scenery can often be the needed spark to uncover new elements in a conversation. It doesn’t have to be a radical change. Even a simple reposition or finding a new angle in the room can be the added dimension that will fuel an interaction.
Changing topics. While there may always be a discussion guide to come back to, deliberate and seemingly random non sequiturs are quite beneficial. They break the mold of generic interview questions and make participants more comfortable and engaged. The classic topics are the weather or sports, but we have had the best results from commenting on jewelry that participants are wearing. People give much thought to such items and they often have deep meaning and significance.
Optimizing optics. There is a focus group facility in Chicago that overlooks the river. Perhaps my favorite moderating experience was the day I was there during filming on the river for action scenes in one of the Transformers movies. Every so often the area would erupt into flames. I knew this was happening, but I did not let the participants in on the secret. Periodically throughout each group, the robot battle in the distance provided all the external energy to light up the conversation. Contrary to conventional thinking, it is never a good idea to close the blinds.
Role reversal. A smart way to use principles of triangulation to create the feeling of equality and trust is to allow the participant to momentarily become the moderator. Allow them to ask you questions; respond honestly. These can be on the topic you are discussing, which in itself allows you to understand rationales and reasoning, or on another area. It can be instantly empowering for both parties to reverse roles.
Triangulation of data. Qualitative research is only one element in the insight arsenal. In any good study on any topic, incorporating lessons learned from other research should always be top of mind. More data points always help us understand an issue. Any of us are only as good as all of us.
It is obviously strange writing about in-person fieldwork during this time. Many of these principles can easily be applied to the new restrictions that our business finds itself in. The unified scenario that everyone is going through only creates more fodder for natural interaction and can easily be incorporated into any triangulation application.
From Daniel’s presentation, The Triforce to Bermuda: Why Triangles Are More Powerful than You Think.