It’s a Tuesday afternoon on campus, and as I’m about to pass through Sather Gate, I see a nice-looking girl handing out flyers and yelling something about saving trees or lowering fees or some other important thing that sounds like that. Whatever it is, I’d rather just keep walking. So when she extends her flyer-ful hand at me, I employ the classic thwarting technique: “Sorry, I’ve got to get to class!” Even though it’s only 1:54 p.m.
Continuing past Dwinelle Hall, an unprecedentedly jovial CalPirg representative asks me if I’ve pledged. Panicking and knowing that he’ll ask for my money, I opt for a simple shaking of my head. The dude behind me, walking with two of his friends who probably endorse his impudence, lets out a semi-flippant “nah.” Internally I chuckle, not because I condone his sassy behavior or because I actually find his remark funny, but because I empathize with his aversion.
Having safely escaped the outer periphery of the Land of Solicitation, I reflect: Why is it that whenever I’m asked to take a survey or a flyer or to sign a petition, I’m overwhelmed with this soul-crushing sensation of anxiety and guilt? Is it our fault, as students, for being too close-minded and self-centered in our own life and responsibilities? Or does the blame belong to the solicitors for being too rapacious and impersonal?
In order to delve into these questions, I decided that I would have to make myself a solicitor. But in order to solicit, one must have some sort of soliciting tool. I didn’t want to make flyers (too brief an interaction), and I didn’t want to make something political or money-requiring (too soulless).
So I decided to go where no man has gone before: I decided to make a weird-ass, pointless survey.
After much soul searching, this is the survey that I created:
- What is your favorite color?
- Describe your hands using two different adjectives.
- If you had to jump into a swimming pool full of a substance of your choice, what substance would you choose?
- Yes or no question: Do you consider yourself dangerous?
- What is your favorite word?
- What is your favorite brown food?
- Describe your favorite texture in one word.
- What’s the first word that comes to your mind when I say “facemask”?
- Describe how you felt when I asked to give you a survey.
- Describe how you feel right now.
Needless to say, I was excited to start asking people these ludicrous questions. But as a first-time solicitor, I had to lay down a few guidelines for myself:
- I cannot answer the question: What’s this survey about? (If I tell them it’s “fun,” they will be more inclined to take it, which would compromise the validity of the experiment.) If someone asks me that question, I tell them, “You have to take it to find out.”
- I must approach everyone with the same demeanor: smiling, positive — at times downright ebullient.
- I must always phrase the question in the same way: “Hey, would you mind answering a really quick survey?”
Over the course of four days, I went around campus to Memorial Glade, QualComm Cafe, the Dwinelle benches, 4.0 Hill and Sproul Plaza, and I had some of the most enjoyable social interactions of my life. When I first approached them, most people seemed to be completely willing to participate (to be exact, 60 out of 77 agreed to take the survey). That was the first surprise. The second surprise was how few people seemed to be nonplussed by the unconventional nature of the survey. A lot of people didn’t even care to ask me what the survey was for.
Of course, there were those 17 people who rejected me — I’ll never forget the girl in QualComm who said she couldn’t participate because she was “having a texting conversation.” But overall, most seemed eager to have a break from their reading or their texting or whatever solitary activity they had been engaged in.
Before I go any further, here’s the stuff you really care about:
- Twenty-nine out of 60 said their favorite color is blue.
- By far the most common adjective that people used to describe their hands was “small” (27 percent).
- An overwhelming plurality of free-thinking, creative UC Berkeley students (21 out of 60) said, in response to the swimming pool question, that they would like to jump into a swimming pool full of water.
- The winner for the brown-food question was chocolate, with almost 32 percent, and the most common favorite texture, at 21.6 percent, was smooth.
I know, I know. These statistics are unfathomably mundane. I mean, come on — water-filled swimming pools already exist. But to be fair, and a little bit cliche, the essence of this experiment has less to do with people’s responses and more to with the interaction required to elicit those responses.
All stigmas aside, soliciting seems to fit into the category of “human interaction.” It involves Person 1 reaching out to Person 2. Person 1 might be the nice-looking girl handing out flyers or the unprecedentedly jovial CalPirg representative — or it might be me for those four days I solicited.
There are three necessary components in the equation of social interaction: Person 1, Person 2 and that shared exchange of thought and emotion, that unique energy that develops when two humans interact. But in a vast majority of the solicitation that occurs today, this essential third component is marred and displaced by an intermediary device — a flyer, a survey or whatever it might be.
There’s something about that flimsy, paper middleman that disrupts and depersonalizes the process of human interaction. Often in the process of soliciting, Person 1 forgets that Person 2 is a human being, which, in turn, causes Person 2 to forget that Person 1 is a human being.
I’m not saying everyone should stop soliciting. Especially here, in the progressive hub of Berkeley, it’s often a means for real progress. What I’m saying is that we should be conscious of the robotic, numbing force of intermediary devices that so often prevents meaningful human interaction. Even the simple decision to maintain eye contact, to acknowledge the humanness of the other person, can do wonders. You’re already interacting with someone you otherwise never would have; why not make it worthwhile?
Of course, the typical survey or flyer or petition does not connect us. But the way we treat these moments of human interaction can and should matter, given that they’re often some of the few moments in our day when we actually speak to someone outside our various social circles. For God’s sake, people are interesting. And aside from the from the nine out of 60 people who said they do, indeed, consider themselves dangerous, they probably won’t bite your head off if you try to talk to them. At the very least, I think, it’s worth it to find out.
Unless, of course, you respond to my ridiculously awesome question about swimming pools with the most boring answer of all time: water. Try to avoid those people.