Focus!

So, ironically enough, I just got paid to give my political opinion.

Last Thursday I was invited to take part in a focus group on political and civic issues. We met on Monday night. Normally I don’t go in for this sort of thing. I don’t do surveys over the phone, and even less of the ones I get in my e-mail. I generally think that we poll too much as Americans, that we’re always asking for opinions before people have really had a chance to form them.

But $100 to sit in a room for two hours and talk, I’ll bite.

Aside from jokes my wife was making about the name “Harvest Research” and how she’d worry they’d taken my brain if I didn’t come home (a real nice joke to make to someone who’s been playing System Shock 2 for the last week), I was worried that I was going to be thrown in the midst of a fairly confrontational and controversial setting.

It’s one thing to be listen to extremist views of Facebook and the like, it’s quite another to be dragged into a conversation at work, or to choose to sit in a room with people who don’t agree with you.

I enjoyed it.

There were definitely a couple of early cringe moments, particularly when playing word association games with current and potential Presidents. There are a couple of the classic attacks of both sides that when I hear them causes me to have to use all my will power not to vent in frustration. However, the same could equally be said  of some of the things I say, and I was impressed at how civil and even convivial the conversation was.

We were a surprisingly diverse group, even with just eight people, all guys around my age. While we had been told to let every one talk and finish their sentences, there was no real disincentive preventing us from debating with one another, or even going on the offensive. We’d get paid either way. But we didn’t fight. Instead everyone displayed fairly sophisticated opinions and emotions regarding the election, the various political parties and the candidates. I felt comfortable sharing some of my own mixed views and disappointments, as well as my aspirations and hopes.

Additionally, we experienced a phenomena that I (perhaps this is biased) think is unique to men. Within less than two hours, a group of men who had little in common, and in fact openly disagreed with each other on important issues, were cracking jokes, both about ourselves, the situation, and our fellow focus group members. We took what I thought was going to be a kind of stressful situation, and made it fun.

It was the typical weird focus group experience. There were one way mirrors, and everything was being taped. But it was also a surprisingly vibrant and interesting discussion of the issues, without trying to make converts of the other people in the room. It was refreshing, at a time when I’ve been seeing a reacting to vitriol that is being spewed in so many other places on the web.

We need to do this more. Find people who disagree with us and invite them to dinner. Talk honestly about our feelings and our beliefs and really listen. Maybe it was the formalized setting. Maybe we felt we should behave because we were getting paid. But I actually think it was more than that. We can be better versions of ourselves if we just make a little effort.

And yes I still have my brain, though I think one of my kidneys is missing.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Focus!

  1. You’re a braver person than I. There’s no way I would’ve gone to that, even for $100. I’m a bit stubborn in my opinions and would’ve left there so stressed and pissed off, it would’ve taken me a week just to calm down. If it were a group of friends, however, that would’ve been enjoyable.
    And don’t worry – you only need one kidney anyway. 😉

  2. Chuck Conover

    Did you wake in a bathtub of ice?

    When’s dinner?

  3. “I generally think that we poll too much as Americans, that we’re always asking for opinions before people have really had a chance to form them.” – I hadn’t thought of it that way, but I like the way you stated this. There’s so much emphasis on what public opinion *is,* but not so much on open, honest discussions of what it *should* be.

    “Additionally, we experienced a phenomena that I (perhaps this is biased) think is unique to men.” – I also think this is biased. 😉

    “We need to do this more. Find people who disagree with us and invite them to dinner. Talk honestly about our feelings and our beliefs and really listen.” – Agree 100%.

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