The dirty secret of my budding* career in the social sciences is that talking to people kind of scares me. It’s a bit difficult to explain why: having spent three years Mohawk-ed in one of the country’s more conservative institutions, I can’t say that I’m too obsessed with what people think of me. Still, though, approaching strangers—whether to get directions, ask them to take a survey, or order a pizza—has always been something of a phobia. I pretty much gave up on a political career when, working on campaigns, I realized that making cold calls made me sick to my stomach. It wasn’t until one year into my last research project, with freegan.info, that I finally mustered up the courage to actually ask people for interviews.
Last week, I let this fear get the better of me. I spent a lot of time sitting around my hotel, hoping that people would miraculously respond to e-mails sent weeks ago, even though they were in reality just a phone call away. I was reconsidering retitling my thesis “An ethnography of the lonely”, because all my data came from people who—seeing me on a park bench down by the pier—were sufficiently starved for human interaction to talk to a solitary gringo. And to think, if I had chosen to enroll in Economic and Social History rather than International Development at Oxford, I could be in the emotionally safe space of a library!
This week, my fear of coming back to Oxford empty handed eventually got the better of my social phobia. As potentially disastrous as a phone call in a foreign language over a questionable connection can be, I’ve been making a lot of cold calls—and scoring a lot of amazing interviews. People are, of course, overwhelmingly nice. This is something that I’ve known all along, but that has been striking me this week, as an enormous number of people have offered me their time and knowledge after I—without introduction—called them. Today, I even marched over to the mayor’s office, hoping to get an explanation for why her secretary had not contacted me as promised. I left an hour later having carried out an on-the-spot interview.
Maybe this sounds vaguely like gloating, but for me, it’s just one of many ways in which I feel like I have personally grown during this trip. Of course, having a mountain of data and the right to hold my head up high on my return to school counts for a lot. And I’m really excited about the idea of now being—more-or-less—bilingual. But much more valuable for me is the realization that maybe choosing a career path that involves a life spent talking to people of all sorts isn’t such a bad idea after all.
*Or soon-to-be-ending, depending on whether I get around to taking the GRE and/or fail my thesis because I do not use these words enough.