Lisa’s War Story: When Rapport Goes Too Far
Lisa Aronson Fitch, a qualitative customer researcher who works in product development, struggles with balancing her personal boundaries with the need to connect with her participant.
While working at a product development consultancy several years ago, I went to Southern California to conduct a series of in-home interviews for a consumer product client. As we all know, it is essential for researchers to develop a rapport with the participants immediately so they feel comfortable having you in their home and opening up about their lives, behaviors, and interests. In one particular interview, a degree of rapport, however questionable, developed quickly.
As soon as the door opened, a five-year-old boy appeared in blue footsie pajamas, asking if he can give me and my colleague kisses. My colleague and I exchanged a quick glance because in the car not minutes before, he mentioned that he isn’t very fond of kids (if I recall, he didn’t say it that nicely). What should we have done? This little boy was waiting with puckered lips. If we said no or that we were uncomfortable letting him kiss us, we risked alienating the mother who was standing there with a smile; if we said yes, we would feel uncomfortable knowing this kid is about to do the exact opposite of what a child should do when meeting a stranger. (Didn’t this parent ever hear of “stranger danger?”) We hadn’t even put our bags down yet and introduced ourselves! To make matters worse, as I started to slowly (very slowly) bend down towards the little boy, his mother says “Remember son, not on the lips!” Needless to say, I was completely confused and disturbed as to why this was all happening. After I received my kiss on the cheek, it was my colleague’s turn. The little footsies-clad kid was then sent to bed and we began the interview with his parents.
While our conversation focused on kitchen routines, my colleague and I struggled with the idea that these parents encouraged their son to kiss strangers. We began to even feel violated as the little boy came running out of his bed six more times through the two-hour interview to give us more kisses. Didn’t he care to ask if I was seeing someone at the time? Following the ordeal, I mean interview, my colleague and I discussed the idea of “when rapport goes too far.” What should a researcher do in this situation? Should we accept kisses from a strange child in the name of developing rapport for a research interview? Should we have suggested to the parents that they teach their child a much different lesson about strangers? Having grown up around New York City, I’ve become properly paranoid about dealing with strangers so the idea of teaching my child it is alright to kiss strangers made me twitch.