QualMIP week 2: Interview nonverbals

February 1, 2016 – 6:33 pm

Part of the QualMIP series, page introduced here.

This is a hurried record that won’t be as eloquent as I would like, but that’s okay. Some record is better than none. The reason: we have visitors from Brazil here this week, and the team opportunistically retooled and bumped a lot of things one week forward so we could teach them some of the things we’ve started exploring in order to give them tools for their own observations of Olin. (I am incredibly proud of them.) So this is… a hurried “wow, they’re coming in half an hour” typing spree on what we did today.

Nonverbals don’t show up on your audio recorder

When conducting qualitative research interviews, researchers often audio-record them for later transcription and analysis. This means that every word you say… is a word you need to transcribe. Sometimes this is great, because you want a verbatim record of something that wouldn’t otherwise show on tape (“okay, you’re laughing now, what’s up?”). Sometimes it’s less great, because your utterances (“uh huh”) are noise rather than signal and add nothing to your analysis. It depends on your goals.

Therefore, it’s useful to think about how to communicate things nonverbally so you can prompt people in ways that don’t — or do — show up in the recording. We played with how to communicate phrases like:

  1. Tell me more!
  2. Why do you say that?
  3. What do you mean by…
  4. Please expand on that.
  5. I don’t understand.
  6. Could you say that again?
  8. Ooh, total empathy here.

Note that we’re also making-visible the disconnect between “what really happened” and what got captured — there’s no such thing as being able to capture everything. In fact, the previous activity is an exercise in manipulating “what happens” so that it either does — or doesn’t — show up.

Interviewing through a window

After discussing nonverbals, we split into three different roles:

  1. An interviewer
  2. An interviewee
  3. Observers

For this exercise, we used a section of the life stories protocol because it was familiar to Olin’s campus (thanks, Jon Adler!) and open-ended while lending itself to taking notes (you could write chapter titles on the whiteboard as you interviewed so observers could easily track where the conversation was).

The interviewer was under instructions to be as nonverbal as possible, as per the previous exercise. The interviewee was instructed to pay attention to what actions of the interviewer made it easier or harder for them to elicit information. Observers watched the interview through a window — we could only see nonverbals. Afterwards, we came back together and the observers did an instant replay of body language and things we could infer about the experience through observation.

This exercise served as a combination interview and observation one, and ideally we’d repeat and rotate through it if we had more time in the semester. We also discussed room and furniture setup and thinking about the effect of various affordances and arrangements in the interview space, and how it might affect you interviewing “down” versus “up” (people who are higher or lower power in status than you, as seen by most of society).

Evening culture skit with Insper students

We went on to plan the evening workshop with Insper students, our visitors from Brazil.

Learning goals:

  • Understand culture and motivation at Olin and Insper
  • Understand power dynamics and its cultural influence

How will we know we’ve won?

  • Participants will be able to articulate observations about culture, power, and motivation differences.


  1. Repeat of the power dynamics warmup from the previous QualMIP, adapted to a larger team.
  2. Divide into two teams of equal size, with one Olin team and one Insper team.
  3. Each team prepares a 1-2 minute skit of what a “normal” classroom looks like for them. Exaggeration and hilarity is encouraged. Each skit is allowed to say one word and one word only, in the vein of Doug Zongker’s “Chicken Chicken Chicken” paper/presentation.
  4. Performances. Laughing.
  5. Break to think alone for a moment.
  6. Pair off (1 Olin student + 1 Insper student in each pair) and interview each other as a first debrief as to what sorts of cultural scripts you saw in operation. This isn’t really a formal interview, it’s more like a slightly extended “pair” in “think pair share.”
  7. Bring back to group discussion and comparison and bringing up of cultural assumptions/norms/etc. The “share” of “think pair share.”

My secret intent here was to have the team engage in the early stages of a (hurried) protocol design process, albeit a heavily interventional one. They came back with all sorts of thoughts about positionality (“how do we introduce ourselves so they jump into the activity with us?”), sensitivity (“I noticed the Insper students were responding to this in the morning…”), a priori frameworks for analysis (“what should we be watching for?”) which we got to (again, hurriedly) pull out in the discussion. Ideally I’d like to have a more extended tour through some of these ideas, but we’ll revisit them in future classes.

Debrief from prior week’s exercise

The team then started filling me in on their fieldwork, using our “debrief the alien” framing for making-strange. (Apparently they visited a metabolism-maintenance station in an institution other than their own, aka the Wellesley cafeteria.) We used the SAID (Situation, Affect, Interpretation, Debrief) framework to talk about the (arbitrary) separation betwee Situation and Interpretation, and the not-one-to-one-or-onto nature of the two.

Next week

Next week we’ll resume with our normal planned activities, discussing memo formats and avoidance techniques before launching into more interview work with a special guest.

Out-of-studio work for this week is nearly nonexistent because of the workshop with Brazilian students. Decompress, memo, and treat yourself well. The exception is Emily, who can’t make the workshop with the Brazilian students and is going to do some sort of follow-up afterwards to see what she can glean of the aftereffects of the event. We’ll compare notes from a distance and it’ll be a good exercise on intersubjectivity. Emily is still supposed to decompress and treat herself well, though.

Part of the QualMIP series, introduced here.

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