Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Anthropology

When a Laugh is not a Laugh

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This is a quickie.

I’ve talked before about how an interviewer has to be careful sometimes in sharing a laugh with an interviewee.  Laughing can make people seem connected to an idea more so than many other ways people interact.  Sometimes, an interviewer can’t afford to have an audience think they have a particular bent.

But this is about the interviewee’s laugh and not in a good way.  Of course laughter can be natural, fun, disarming.  It is one of the primary ways we connect.  But sometimes, a laugh is an anthropological proxy for something very different.  In some cases, a laugh says that the interviewee is nervous and they are trying to draw the interviewer into the interviewee’s artificial mood so that they can feel more in control of the situation.

Sometimes, a laugh is intended to dismiss, as when an interviewer asks a question and before the question is out, the interviewee is laughing in a way that clearly says, “That’s a ridiculous question”, followed up by something that isn’t a direct affront but sounds passive aggressive or patronizing.

And sometimes, the laugh is a disguise for aggression.  We’ve all seen it.  The conversation that is held behind gritted teeth because to scowl or grimace or bear teeth without the upturned corners of the mouth might jeopardize what the laugher is trying to achieve.  It might be working their way out of an uncomfortable situtation for which they have much embarassment and no appreciation.  Or it could be dealing with someone they dislike or fear but dare not be obvious about it.  Or it could be interacting with someone for whom they have no respect.

There are a lot of interpersonal dynamics in play during an interview.  The interviewer’s job is to keep his in check and not be drawn in by any play on the his ego by the interviewee’s ego.  This includes the seemingly harmless but potentially crippling use of laughter.  I’ve said it before, but it’s important for the interviewer to be nothing but a mirror to the interviewee.  In that way, they lose any ability to manipulate and are left to just answer the question.

Written by Interviewer

April 28, 2014 at 14:23

Last few interviews

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I have really been enjoying talking to these folks I’ve had the good fortune to interview, especially recently.

Dar Williams is sweet and petite, but she’s been making music for 20 years, so she may look like Strawberry Shortcake, but I’m sure she’s tough as nails to be in the music business.  And her music is wonderful.

Caroline Miller is a free spirit in a jet pack.  At 76, she is simply one of the most fearlessly thinking people I have ever met.  She cried at retelling a story from WWII, and practically squealed with delight when we started talking about fractals.  I loved it.

Irma McClaurin is brainy and beautiful and an inspiration not only to young African men and women who might be seeking to point themselves in multiple directions, but an inspiration to me.  I’ve always felt blessed whenever I’ve met someone that made me think, “I could be better.”  She did and I’ll be looking for more and newer ways to make old behaviors less inefficient and new behaviors more nurturing.  Thanks, Irma.

Russell Hitchcock, who is 1/2 of the group “Air Supply” was a very gentle and friendly person to talk to.  He was open about his passions for his craft and his professional relationship with co-member Graham Russell, which by the way, is as good as it has always been.  He says they’ll be making music for a long time, but they each are free to make their own music.  He has made a great CD called “Russell Hitchcock Tennessee” which has a wonderful single on it called “How far is far enough away from Colorado?”  Air Supply doing country?  But, it sounds great.  And Graham Russell’s website is, as this is written, in the process of being built.  So, they both are very vibrant.

Finally, Charles Murray…. he and I had a conversation on the terrace of the Library of Congress about 20 years ago.  He was there for a speaking engagement related to his last book, “The Bell Curve.”  As a black man, I felt like, “I have to talk to this person to understand why he hates us so much.”  Of course now, looking back, that might’ve been me buying totally into the hyperbole against him of the time.  We had, as I remember, a civil and even interesting chat, but I could’nt help thinking, “I wonder if he is looking at me thinking, ‘Hmmm, this is a smart one.'”  Talking to him again recently and reading his book, I wondered if the backlash from the Bell Curve either directly or indirectly contributed to one use of the word “Negro” and almost no uses of the words “Black” or “African American” in the 417 pages of his newest book, “Coming Apart.”  I wondered if the backlash against his research and scholarship was so intense and vitriolic at the time that it might’ve somewhat burned him.  Then again, it’s probably much more likely that because the new book is only about problems he sees with white culture, blacks and other non dominant culture groups simply weren’t his focus.

He called this book his valedictory.  Valedictory, mean final.  And as he mentioned both in the interview and in his book, he is 68.  But in the interview, he wasn’t saying he was through writing as much as he feels he’s said all he can say about intelligence and race.  I respect Mr. Murray for having the courage of his convictions.  We all must.