Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Errol Morris on asking questions

Added on by Spencer Wright.

I've been thinking a lot recently of a passage from Chuck Klosterman's book Eating the DinosaurIn it he talks to the documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, and the topic is about the act of being interviewed by people. This is a bit of a long passage, but I think it's a fascinating topic - and a relevant one to me, as I've learned *so* much over the past few years by simply asking people if I could ask them questions, and then going ahead and doing so.

For the past five years, I've spent more time being interviewed than conducting interviews with other people. I am not complaining about this, nor am I proud of it - it's just the way things worked out, mostly by chance. But the experience has been confusing. Though I always understand why people ask me the same collection of questions, I never know why I answer them. Frankly, I don't know why anyone answers anything. The obvious explanation is that the interviewee is hoping to promote a product or a concept (or the "concept of themselves," which is its own kind of product), but that's reductive and often untrue; once a media entity makes the decision to conduct and produce an interview with a particular somebody, the piece is going to exist regardless of how the subject responds to the queries. The interviewee can say anything, even if those sentiments contradict reality. They can deliver nothing but cliches, but the story will still run. On three occasions I've consciously (and blatantly) attempted to say boring things during an interview in the hope of killing the eventual article. It only worked once. But this type of behavior is rare. Most of the time, I pretend to be interesting. I try to frame my response in the context in which the question was asked, and I try to say things I haven't said before. But I have no clue as to why I do this (or why anyone else does, either). 
During the summer of 2008, I was interviewed by a Norwegian magazine writer named Erik Moller Solheim. He was good at his job. He knew a lot of trivia about Finland's military history. We ate fried pork knees and drank Ur-Krostitzer beer. But in the middle of our playful conversation, I was suddenly paralyzed by an unspoken riddle I could not answer: Why was I responding to this man's questions? My books are not translated into Norwegian. If the journalist sent me a copy of his finished article, I could not read a word of it. I don't even know what the publication's name (Dagens Naeringslif) is supposed to mean. I will likely never go to Norway, and even if I did, the fact that I was interviewed for this publication would have no impact on my time there. No one would care. The fjords would be underwhelmed.
As such, I considered the possible motives for my actions:
  1. I felt I had something important to say. Except I did not. No element of our interaction felt important to me. If anything, I felt unqualified to talk about the things the reporter was asking me. I don't have that much of an opinion about why certain Black Metal bands burn down churches.
  2. It's my job. Except that it wasn't. I wasn't promoting anything. In fact, the interaction could have been detrimental to my career, were I to have inadvertently said something insulting about the kind of Norway. Technically, there was more downside than upside.
  3. I have an unconscious, unresolved craving for attention. Except this feels inaccurate. It was probably true twenty years ago, but those desires have waned. Besides, who gives a fuck about being famous in a country I'll never visit? Why would that feel good to anyone? How would I even know it was happening?
  4. I had nothing better to do. This is accurate, but not satisfactory.
  5. I'm a nice person. Unlikely.
  6. When asked a direct question, it's human nature to respond. This, I suppose, is the most likely explanation. It's the crux of Frost/Nixon. But if this is true, why is it true? What is the psychological directive that makes an unanswered question discomfiting?
Why do people talk?
Why do people talk? Why do people answer the questions you ask them? Is there a unifying force that prompts people to respond?
Errol Morris: Probably not, except possibly that people feel this need to give an account of themselves. And not just to other people, but to themselves. Just yesterday, I was being interviewed by a reporter from the New York Observer, and we were talking about whether or not people have privileged access to their own minds.
CK: Privileged access?
EM: My mind resides somewhere inside of myself. That being the case, one would assume I have privileged access to it. In theory, I should be able to ask myself questions and get different answers than I would from other people, such as you. But I'm not sure we truly have privileged access to our own minds. I don't think we have any idea who we are. I think we're engaged in a constant battle to figure out who we are. I sometimes think of interviews as some oddball human relationship that's taking place in a laboratory setting. I often feel like a primatologist.
CK: Do you feel like you know the people that you interview? Because I never do. It seems like a totally fake relationship.
EM: I don't feel like I know myself, let alone the people I interview. I might actually know the people I interview better than I know myself. A friend of mine once said that you can never trust a person who doesn't talk much, because how else do you know what they're thinking? Just by the act of being willing to talk about oneself, the person is revealing something about who they are.
CK: But what is the talker's motive? Why did you decide to talk to the New York Observer? Why are you talking to me right now?
EM: Well, Okay. Let's use the example of Robert McNamara. Why does McNamara feel the need to talk to me - or anyone - at this point in his life? Because there's a very strong human desire to do so. It might be to get approval from someone, even if that person is just me. It might even be to get a sense of condemnation from people. Maybe it's just programmed into us as people. McNamara also had this weird "approach-avoidance" thing: He agreed to do the interview because he assumed I was part of the promotion of his [then new] book. I called him around the same time his book was coming out, and he thought it was just part of that whole deal. When he realized it was not, he became apprehensive and said he didn't think he was going to do it. But then he did, and it went on for well over a year. In fact, I continued to interview him for a long time after that movie was finished, just because I found it very interesting.
CK: But why did McNamara keep talking?
EM: He said he enjoyed talking to me. That was his explanation.

I think a lot of people don't realize the power of this. If you want answers, ask questions. People reply way more often than you'd expect.