Soliciting strangers as education

Not the soliciting you may be hoping for.

On another forum, something came up that reminded me of something a lecturer asked a class of mine to do for an essay. We were to write an essay on a particular field, and to get our information we were to interview people in that field. We weren’t allowed contact anyone we knew, or anyone we dealt with over the course of our education, so no-one from internships or any guest lecturers we had. I felt very uncomfortable doing this, and put my qualms to my lecturer, saying it may even be a moral objection and he waived that part of the essay for me. So I was wondering what you would think.

Would you have an objection with seeking out random strangers as part of writing your essay? As part of the referencing process you would have to give the details of the people you interviewed. The people you’d have to interview would be from the mid-managerial level to executive level of medium businesses. The essay would be of no use to anyone, it’s not original research that’s going to advance the area of concern. It’s not going to develop a new device or system, or benefit anyone other than yourself. In fact it’s a purely selfish activity. The only benefit, bar to yourself, may be in developing links between your university and the business the person you interviewed is from.

Like I said, I felt very uncomfortable in doing this. Contacting people I knew or met, or the guest lecturers and employers who had already said to me, “Get in touch if there’s anything we can help with” or people who have an interest in my education would be one thing, although I’d still feel uncomfortable doing so. Contacting someone out of the blue, and putting them in a position where they had to refuse me is something entirely different. I don’t think it’s correct to put someone in that position, and I wouldn’t want to infringe on anyones time.

This could all stem from the time I worked in a call centre and (sort-of) was tasked with cold-calling people to get a sale. It’s possible this case is different, but with it being a purely selfish matter I don’t think so. I mean, even my parents had strong objections to trick or treating. They felt it wasn’t polite.

All that being said, if a student ever contacted me and asked for my help, I’d do everything I could to help them (within reason.) I think education is important, and I wouldn’t hold anything against someone for asking, even if I couldn’t help. I just wouldn’t want to solicit people myself. And in certain fields I have no qualms in doing it even if the motives are selfish, like people trying to find a job.

What do you think?

Slightly off-topic - you never went trick-or-treating??

I did once. I grabbed my 20p mask and snuck out of my house when I was five to go trick or treating around the estate. When I got back my parents made me eat every apple and orange I was given while they gave out to me. (I hated oranges, the apples were tolerable.)

That could have been because I was only five and too young to be going out on my own. The next year we had moved to a quasi-rural area with the houses along fairly dangerous roads, so they just sent us trick or treating from the front door to the back door. So I guess I won’t find out.

Although they had a strong objection to schools instituting charity drives as well. You know where the school nominates a charity and all the kids were sent back to their families with sponsorship cards to get all their relations and neighbours to donate money. They felt charity was a personal thing and an adult thing, and that it was unfair to force children to solicit (especially when they may solicit from people who don’t have the means to donate.) And that it was unfair to put children in an ostensibly competitive environment in the name of charity.

Look at the thread on bad games journalism where the current topic is some guy repeatedly interviewing his best buddy over the years.

You’d be surprised how many journalists have a problem bothering random people even though you’d think it was a prerequisite for the job. Of course we all often turn to the sources we know over finding new out of sheer laziness (or just being pratical).

Personally I hate doing vox pop (but I generally hate the genre) and dread that first call to a new source… but when doing sciency stuff for a paper stuff I loved finding experts, calling them and picking their brains on subjects I found interesting.

I had a couple classes as an undergraduate that required us to do some field polling. The professor would not let us just ask around campus, we had to identify a particular neighborhood & then go door-to-door. I had done a lot of door-to-door sales as a kid (Christmas cards, wreaths, garden seeds, candy, plus my own vacation pet/home care business) so it didn’t bother me, but there were some students who were terrified about it. Nobody got out of it. I later learned that since that professor also ran the internship program for our department, this was actually one of his secret screening tools for deciding on intern recommendations.

As a lawyer, people pay me to handle their confrontations, so talking to strangers is a big part of the job. Since I practice public law, this often happens in large public meetings. Kind of a confluence of potential phobias when you throw in public speaking. One of our clients jokingly called me a cyborg the other day, which was meant and I took as a compliment.

I don’t know why you’re putting my reluctance down to fear. I have no problem with dealing with rejection when I ask something of someone. I was one of the few people in a class where I would question lecturers and guest speakers to the point of sterenuous debate. I don’t have a problem interviewing people for actual research, and that extends to journalism. I have interviewed people as part of my education, but that was going towards the development of a new theory that could possibly be of use. I worked in telesales and made my fair share of sales. And I ran underage gigs and had no problem going up to people on the street to tell them about the event.

My problem is in imposing myself on people in a purely selfish act. This was not original research, it was not furthering a field, and it was not going to be of benefit to the society. At most it would have generated business links for the university. And that’s what I have a problem with.

This also describes most journalism ;-)

The goal of the assignment was not to establish business links. The goal was to teach you through the experience. It would further your own education, and through that (ostensibly) whatever field you endeavor to join.

If memory serves, you’re supposed to take the skins off first.

I had a similar assigment in a “business of illustration” class in college. We were tasked with contacting art directors to interview them about the process of getting work as an artist, what they looked for in a portfolio, and so on. It was an incredibly tacky assigment, and several of the art directors told me as much. Every one that I contacted declined to be interviewed (protip: art directors are busy people), and I ended up writing my paper on the dubious wisdom of sending students out to piss off the very people upon whom they would soon be relying for work. I got an A.

I had to do this for an assignment a couple times, in a journalism course I was taking. Sometimes it involved cold-calling, but there was one assignment that relied on shoe leather; get out there and find people to talk to about X.

Initially I was a little worried, because I don’t approach strangers easily (outside of defined roles), but I got over it pretty quickly and the worry turned to annoyance, as none of the people I wanted to interview (the head of the local Unitarian church, someone from a youth support agency) were available or willing to speak to me.

But I kept at it, and eventually sat down with the mayor, the president of the local Chamber of Commerce, and the staff of one of the many left-wing activist organizations in town, all in the course of a couple of hours.

No, I wouldn’t have any issues or trouble in approaching stangers for interviews. Your objections (as worded above) are out of self-interest. It appears you don’t want to ask strangers for interviews because of how it would make you feel. That’s fine, whatever, but it’s a you problem, not a moral dilemma. I mean that in the nicest possible way.

You’re not putting anyone in an awkward position by asking them for an interview. If they don’t want to do it, or don’t have the time, or if they just don’t like your face, they’ll say ‘Nope, not interested.’ There won’t be any hand wringing or sleepless nights on their part, I assure you. You, as Complete Stranger, are not all that important.

It’s not my intent to sound all hard-guy about this, but you’re asking for an interview, not for a loan or for their most favored puppy.

I don’t approach strangers or talk to them, as we’ve covered at some point in the past in the internet dating thread. Somewhere inside of me, I suspect that inflicting myself upon people who have not specifically asked for such a horribly thing to happen is an offense on the level of punching a random person in whatever segment of their body is the most sensitive.

I have crazy brains, though.

In practice, I know (though I’m still uncomfortable) that just about anybody that you can get contact information for without having to stoop to stalking is okay with you contacting him. For interview subjects, I expect this is doubly true. Doesn’t change how I feel, but rationally I can understand that this is some kind of social anxiety on my part and probably not many well adjusted people are going to hate me forever for cold-calling them out of the blue to ask them some general questions about what they do for a living, and at worst they’ll just tell me to piss up a rope and maybe be a little annoyed until a monkey drinks its own pee on YouTube or something.

Why not just email them first and ask if you could call them to chat for 15 minutes at some point?

It’s tough, but like public speaking you get used to it.

Most people love to talk about their jobs. If you tell people would like 20 minutes of their time to help with some university research, and you want to talk about what life in their field is like, you will get plenty of positive responses. This is particularly true with mid-level managers, many of whom never get to be the center of anyone’s attention unless they’re being blamed for a problem.

Also, don’t email - call them. Emails may seem easier, but they’ll be regarded as spam, and virtually nobody will say yes. A polite human voice will produce results.

That will vary. If you called me at work (tough as-is, as my number isn’t generally available), I’d be pretty unhappy and would give you my standard, “No solicitations at work,” response and hang up. I do not like to be cold-called.

If you email me, on the other hand, as long as you provide sufficient information for me to verify that you are who you say you are and not someone data-phishing, you’re not unlikely to get more information than you know what to do with out of me.

As you note, most folks love to talk about what they do to an interested audience. I’m no exception. I do, however, want to do it at a time of my choosing.

I spent a long time doing paid street and door canvassing for charities.

I’m something of an exhibitionist, so stopping people and soliciting money (for a good cause, mind, our org was used by Oxfam, Save the Children, the ASPCA, the ACLU, the DNC and a few other groups, although the actual org I worked for was a sleazy shithole) after telling them a story wasn’t a big deal.

A lot of new hires got extremely upset about that aspect of the job, and even many old hands were uncomfortable about the idea of soliciting for money from cold contacts. This often led to them not pursuing a lead effectively, or accepting an early rejection as an easy out from a situation they weren’t happy with, or failing to establish any sort of rapport.

While I ran into a number of douchebags, a large subsection of the people I bothered were, despite frequent lies, genuinely interested in whatever cause I represented that week. As an even bigger surprise, while I was often ignored on street, the people who stopped were almost always friendly. Door was another situation, but showing up at someone’s house and asking for money is a good deal more invasive.

Long story short, no, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with random solicitation for a decent purpose, even if your mind tells you it’s skeezy. And you should absolutely feel fine about soliciting randos for a project: that’s what surveying is, after all!