The Survey Experience: Perspectives from an Introvert

I have a confession to make. I am an introvert.  I did not always realize I was an introvert, I used to think I was just shy or maybe quiet. But a few years ago, I stumbled across the Caring for Your Introvert by Jonathan Rauch (I highly recommend reading the article in its entirety). The article described me perfectly:

“Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk?”

Yes! Me!

According to Rauch:

“Shy people are anxious or frightened or self-excoriating in social settings; introverts generally are not. Introverts are also not misanthropic…rather, introverts are people who find other people tiring.”

I know that sounds bad but it’s nothing personal. I don’t find individual people tiring, social settings are just draining for me. Honestly, sometimes I am as exhausted after a large-scale social situation as I am after a CrossFit workout (hopefully not as sweaty though – unless there was dancing involved).  I need at least a couple of nights a week to myself to even consider willingly attending social events and I am one of those people who after 2 or 3 hours at a party really just needs to go home and take a nap. But at the same time, I do not get nervous giving a presentation or teaching a class of 90 students and overall, I think that I am a pretty approachable person and very social in small groups. I do still enjoy large social settings, going to parties, and hanging out with friends, I just need a “rest” day in-between such events.

When I decided to pursue a degree in recreation and the management of recreation, I knew that human dimensions were an important part of properly managing parks and protected areas. I also knew that studying human dimensions pretty much necessitated actually talking to people. However, somehow and naively, I thought I could get away with a graduate program just focused on the “recreation ecology” aspect of managing protected areas (Can’t I just map trails and look at plants all day??).  I was wrong…

During my second field season of graduate school, I found myself at a trailhead with a pile of clipboards, stacks of numbered surveys, and little lunch baggies full of freshly sharpened golf pencils. This introvert was able to spend two weeks, 6 to 8 hours a day, asking strangers for a favor (while they are on vacation!), and engaging in small talk. I am pretty sure this situation perfectly describes an introvert’s nightmare.

from xkcd.com

A few things to know about survey work (especially for those of you who may find yourself at the “filling-in-the bubbles” end of a recreation survey) from the experiences of an introverted amateur social scientist:

1.  I get a rush of adrenaline every single time I have to “intercept” – that’s the fancy word for “ask” – a visitor to take a survey; even after handing out over 800 surveys and participating in even more “interceptions” (I’ve had many rejections over the past four years). You never know what kind of mood the person will be in when you stop them which is a tad unnerving. Generally people are super nice and polite but once and awhile you get someone a tad crazy or very angry (usually at the government…).  At one of my recent survey sites, I could hear the visitors coming down the trail before I could see them.  Every time I heard the sound of feet shuffling or climbing gear clanking, I would take a deep breath and mentally prepare myself for the 10 second “pitch” I give to get people to stop long enough so that I can actually ask them if they’d be willing to take a survey.

2. I honestly feel a little bad about doing survey work. I know it’s important to the park and it’s important to me, my graduate work, and needed to further science in my field to be able to collect social science data but I am about to ask a stranger to take 10 to 20 minutes out of their day – out of their vacation really – for something that they may never benefit from.  I feel bad about it! Really, all I can offer them is a place to sit while they take the survey and often times it’s hot or buggy or there are bees near my survey chairs or bark beetles eating the tree right behind the participants’ head. I never actually apologize because I feel like saying “Sorry you have to do this” is unprofessional but I try to make the experience as pleasurable as possible. I make small talk (or at least the best small talk that an introvert can handle) and ask about the participants lives and vacations.

Conducting survey work in a National Park.

Conducting survey work in a National Park.

3. Getting a rejection really, really sucks.  Most likely I have been standing around all day watching people head out on or come back from awesome hikes. I often have a quota to fill and because I need a random sample, I cannot simple ask every person that comes down the trail and call it a day after 2 hours. I have to space out my quota over almost an entire day. If I am stopping you, it’s cause I REALLY need a completed survey and NOW. I know if you say “No, thanks” it’s nothing personal but at the end of a long day when it’s dinner time and I still need 5 surveys before I can go home – a “No” feels like a slap in the face.  It’s even worse when someone cannot even bother to say “No” and just walks by before I can even finish my sentence, as if I am invisible.

4. I really, really appreciate it when someones takes a survey.  You literally help make my day better if you say “yes, I’ll take your survey”.  That is one less person that I have to stop that day and one more survey closer to being able to go home and relax in my tent by myself or eat dinner.  It’s amazing how much power the visitors have in terms of  dictating what kind of day I will have.

One of my first field seasons doing survey work, I stopped a middle-aged woman and asked her to complete what ended up being a 10-page survey  Most people finished it in about 10-15 min but almost every single participant complained about the length (if I could have made the survey shorter I would have but my model design would not allow it). This particular woman accepted the survey and sat in my survey chair for a good 30 minutes. Not once did she complain, she read every question carefully and responded thoughtfully, and actually smiled the entire time she was there! I one point, I “warned” her that the survey was long and she responded “Oh, don’t worry! I am having a wonderful time answering your questions!”. When she left, she thanked me for the work I was doing. That was one of the best days I have had doing survey work.

Surveys in the sand.

Surveys in the sand.

4. I have all kinds of weird superstitions about survey work. I never, ever wear sunglasses when intercepting a visitor, I want them to be able to look into the eyes of a desperate, poor grad student and take pity on me. I believe, based on no scientific data what-so-ever, that two female researchers get more “yes”s than a pair of male researchers or a male and female pair. If all else fails, and no one seems to want to take your survey, bribe the visitors with chocolate.  Visitors usually ask for beer but I am pretty sure that would violate some code of ethics.  There is such a thing as survey karma – I feel indebted from now until the end of my life to accept pretty much every single survey that I am asked to participate in. I need to give back to the social science universe for all the “yes”s I have received in my graduate career.

Since the start of that second field season, I have collected over 800 surveys. I am probably averaging a 75% response rate which means I have talked to an estimated 1100 strangers across three different protected areas. I am excluding any GPS-tracking work I have done. I find it easier to ask someone to carry a GPS unit than to ask them to take a survey; which involves a commitment of time from the visitor and a commitment of small talk from me. On the flip side, in my recreation ecology work, I have hikes miles and miles of designated and informal trails. For an introvert like me, a single day of survey work is as exhausting – if not more – than hiking at 14,000 ft with a pack full of gear mapping visitor impacts for 6 hours. I can think of at least half a dozen friends whose field work is much more difficult than mine is physically, but mentally – not much can compare with being introverted and having to ask hundreds of strangers across a week to fill in a survey for you.

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One thought on “The Survey Experience: Perspectives from an Introvert

  1. Oh goodness, I know how you feel! When I first entered college, I jumped right into student government, feeling that this would “help” with my introversion. And boy, did it 🙂 Lots of clipboarding work, dealing with rejection (it definitely does suck), and that joy of persuading someone to stop and listen!

    Great post 😀

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