December 30, 2012

The Art Of The Street Survey

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Orin Zebest
Orin Zebest

Today, I stood on the side of the street for two and a half hours and surveyed people about their newspaper reading habits for a geography project. My brother was scared that creepy old men would harass me but, as it turns out, even creepy old men hate people who take surveys on the street. We are the scourges of humanity.

After I got over my initial fear of butting my way into people’s lives, it was almost fun. People went to extreme lengths to avoid me. Some walked into the street or pretended they couldn’t hear me. A lot of people said “no, thank you though,” as if by bothering them I had bestowed upon them a small gift that they were forced to awkwardly reject. A lot of people mumbled about being late to meetings. Some of those people probably were late. Some of them went into the Starbucks next door.

I felt hated. All those people who were having decent days suddenly had to deal with the guilty awkwardness that comes from denying another person’s existence. A couple of the people I smiled at were young guys, who smiled back, then feigned fascination with a nearby bush when they saw my clipboards. I think the next time I get harassed I’ll ask the person if they have a moment to answer a few questions.

I felt a strange, burning need to justify myself. I almost wanted a sign or a T-shirt or something with which I could convey that I wasn’t looking for signatures, donations, awareness, moral outrage, or recruits for some vague cause. I tried to voice this by specifying that I wanted people to fill out a ‘survey’ or a ‘research survey.’ That got me experimenting with various ways of phrasing my interruption, to see whether more people would fill out the survey if I asked for a minute of their time or thirty seconds. The results showed that no matter how I phrased it, absolutely no one wanted to take my survey.

Because I was a stationary target, people eventually started to ask me for directions. Which was an issue because I have the street sense of Dora the Explorer, who needs the help of my 5-year-old cousin to find a map in her own backpack. At first I admitted up front that I had no idea where to find specific restaurants, but after a little while I felt like I was tarnishing my reputation as a street surveyer. So I looked up the names of the nearby streets on my phone and started to make stuff up. Warner Theater? Down that way to the left. National Theater? Same way. White House? Down that way to the right. I pointed people in the same general direction to everything they asked for. I worried that eventually a horde of misguided people might come back to yell at me, but I left before that could happen.

At one point, discouraged by the lack of passersby, I turned to a nearby pigeon and asked if it wanted to take my survey. This was probably because I’m convinced my life is a movie in the teen drama-comedy genre. The pigeon stared at me for a moment, then walked away. “Yeah,” I said. “I didn’t think so.”

At the first place I went to, I had a bucket of wrapped peppermints with me as an incentive. At the second place I kept the peppermints in my bag because the looks people with children gave me told me that I had become the stranger with candy my teachers used to warn me about.

A couple of people didn’t quite seem to get that I wasn’t asking for money. One asked me if I would pay her for taking the survey — I offered her a peppermint. She turned me down.

It was a weird day. Did I learn any lessons? Yes. I learned things like people in groups won’t stop because they have safety in numbers and feel less guilty for saying no. I learned that people waiting for buses are easy targets.

Did I take away any greater moral lessons about worth, judgment, and the way people treat each other? Absolutely not. TC Mark

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