Interaction designer David Hoard shares a story where even his best intentions are not sufficient to prevent a perplexing gaffe.
Researcher Chinami Inaishi and I were on a 10-day trip to Tokyo to interview kids and young adults about their video game use. It was 1995 and the console wars were in full effect. Chinami is Japanese, but had lived in the US for many years. So she was the perfect local guide to help me understand the cultural nuances we were witnessing. She also helped us navigate the nearly impossible house numbering system in Tokyo, where house 31 was next to number 6, which was next to 109. This echoed one theme of the trip: squeeze things in wherever you can find space for them. Every square inch will be utilized.
The visits were fascinating and enriching at each stop. We saw small beautiful homes with Western-style furniture next to Japanese Tatami rooms. We interviewed a young man with the smallest apartment ever, a tiny 8′ x 8′ space packed to the gills with Western-oriented magazines, blue jeans, skateboards, and a (unused) full-size surfboard. The kids were impressive, with their beautiful calligraphy work and exacting toy collections. In all cases, no square inch of space was unused, and that made me rethink the design were considering. A low, wide game console was perhaps out, replaced by a slim vertical unit that could fit in one of their dense bookcases.
Before the trip, I had done my best to read up on Japanese culture and manners. There’s no way to learn a culture from a book or two – my goal was simply to avoid making a big mistake. I practiced and practiced the few phrases I would need (Chinami was doing simultaneous translation for 98% of it). I knew my two-handed business card presentation technique, and I nearly understood the rules for bowing.
We’d been through most of the visits, and so far so good. All of the sessions had gone fairly well, and we were learning a lot. But then I did something bad. Something wrong.
We had been visiting a house near the end of a train line, slightly out of the city-center. The session was over; it was time to pack up the camera and notes and head out. We were doing our now-normal goodbye ritual, trying to check off the right etiquette boxes. And then it happened: I misstepped. Near the front door, I stepped my sock foot just off the wood floor and onto the carpet. With one shoe on already. Unknown to me, I just violated an important manner about exactly where your shoes go back on when you leave.
Instantly the whole family erupted in hysterical laughter, with everyone pointing at me. Suddenly I was in a mayday situation, with my manners in a dangerous nosedive. Confused, I did my best to get my shoes on as Chinami pulled me out the door and onto the street. She was like a commando extricating someone from an international hotspot.
“What was that??” I asked, once we were out on the street.
Chinami informed me that laughter (apparently hysterical laughter) was how the Japanese cope with a faux-pas or embarrassing situation. Embarrassment was indeed what I created, and I felt it too. Intense embarrassment comes with a whole set of physical sensations. You’re flushed, addled, and dazed. You’ve got great regret, but it’s too late to fix it.
When we go out to do field research, we often feel we are going out to observe a strange species in its native habitat. We are the scientists, they are the creatures to be documented. We go to great lengths to help them feel comfortable with our scientist-like presence. We feel like we are the smart ones.
But guess what? The research participants are in their native habitat, and are experts on their own lives. We the researchers are the weird aliens. We’re the ones not getting their nuance. We’re the ones who are sometimes worthy of mockery.
But it’s all in a days work when you’re out doing research; you’ve got to be light on your feet. Every research session I’ve ever been on has been a dance to cover the material and sniff out insights right below the surface. All while you try to make everyone comfortable and keep the conversation flowing. It’s that dance that makes it exciting; just try to keep your toes in the right place.