Looking at the world like a journalist

When did “How are you?” become a greeting? This might sound like a strange question, but really think about it. When was the last time someone asked you that question, aside from maybe your mother, and waited for you to reply with something other then “fine/good/great?”

Granted, there may be a few people in your life who take the time to ask you about your day (Cherish those people!), but my point is that we don’t ask each other nearly enough how we feel, think or dream. I realized this during an ice breaker game. I am a Peer Advisor on the Residential Life staff for the University of Missouri this year, and during one of our staff training “ice breakers” we all had to write two questions for the group on a sheet of paper. Here are a couple of my favorites:

  • What is your favorite sound?
  • What are you most passionate about?

Some of the answers to the questions blew me away. I loved the way one of my coworkers described his favorite sound – The lively chatter you hear from a distance at a family gathering, and the sense of comfort and warmth you feel knowing that you are about to walk into a room of people you love. The responses taught me so much more about the people around me than any normal small talk conversation could.

The kind of questions my staff asked each other are the kind of questions journalists ask their subjects every day. We ask firefighters to describe the relieved faces of those they rescue and athletes to explain the rush they get after winning a big competition. We also ask seemingly everyday people the kind of “How are you?” questions most people never do, too. In high school I wrote a story about a well-known business sign holder in my town. The man held an advertisement sign for a local business and would get dressed up and dance on a sidewalk with the sign nearly every day. Around town, people recognized him as the “sign guy,” but no one had asked him why he loved a job which required such long hours of standing on his feet. I can’t describe the look in the man’s face when he explained that following a rough break-up, he hadn’t seen his two-year-old son since his birth; seeing young children smile at his dancing reminded him of his son’s smile.

The best way I’ve heard it described, is thinking about people as anthills. We see people on a surface level, unless we dig to reveal the complexities underneath. Artist John Koenig coined a word for this, called “sonder.” I love the way this video explains the universal story we all share.

Everyone has a story that someone hasn’t discovered yet. The best journalism finds a unique story in everyone. A great journalist recognizes the elements of the human condition we all posses. But what is stopping the rest of us from “being journalists” in our everyday lives? Let’s start asking people how they are with every intention to find out this time.


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