"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
The art of the interview in Taiwan
In the last week of August, in the middle of typhoon season, I found myself trudging through gale force winds in an industrial wasteland. Between water droplets the air smelled metallic and sharp. The wind was too strong for an umbrella, but the rain was warm and vaguely comforting. Stepping over sagging branches and weeds gone wild along an overgrown pedestrian walkway beside the electric groan of another steel plant, I still felt happy because I knew I’d just done something meaningful. I’d secured one more piece of data.
If you intend to learn something with the precision and depth of a social scientist, there are at least two methods to get your heads out of the books and journals and closer to the experts. For my study about environmental investment in Taiwanese steel manufacturing, I relied heavily on interviews and survey data. How to leverage the right amount and right kind of persuasion to get this data has been an education in itself.
Although guanxi is an oft-cited characteristic of social networks in Asia, its core principle is probably universally relevant. Guanxi refers to the importance of relationships in getting anything done; it refers to the need for trust between two cooperating parties before any action can get underway. This term has become prominent for international businesspeople because, in their dealings with some Asian tycoons, they often must go well beyond a solid business plan and impressive credentials to cut a deal. There are CEOs out there who won’t green light a business relationship with you until they’ve tried to drink you under a table. One man’s night of intoxicated indiscretion is another man’s trust-building exercise.
But this scenario captures a meeting between equals, wherein the resulting business relationship may be mutually profitable. Guanxi especially becomes powerful (and more universally relevant) when you’re calling in a favor. For instance, “Please fill out my survey…?”
Collecting data for me has been one marathon session of connect the dots. Each dot represents one node in an intricate web of social networking comprised of both professional and friendship relationships. You invest a lot in that first interview, because you know it will likely directly lead you to three more. Whereas a person might not give you the time of day if you walked into their office off the street, they might be willing to give you some time if you come fresh from their colleague’s good graces.
After a set of frustrating Chinglish phone calls to various steel interests in the south of the island, my first two surveys came purely through phone calls made by an engineering consultant with direct ties to my target companies. It can be a difficult pill to swallow, leaning on the kindness of others and exploiting their social connections to get what you need, but in the end it is the most reliable method to tap the experts you want.
I am still unclear about the relative usefulness of run-of-the-mill persuasive tactics in this research context. The pop psych mags and blog posts will tell you to appeal to your targets’ needs (i.e. their need for the basic tools of survival, for relationship and connection, for self-esteem and contribution). In the event that I resort to cold-calling my potential survey participants, I will likely try to appeal to these motivations in a cover letter. It also might not hurt to express that you have some authority on your side (if a regulatory office or chamber of commerce has participated in your study already, their tacit assent to your credibility may sway others), or to recognize and praise other companies that took part (i.e. the bandwagon effect). A professional flourish, a shiny thank you note, a glossy pamphlet, might even attract someone’s attention enough to bypass your survey’s high-speed route from the envelope to the trash.