Wednesday, September 12, 2007

SKEWING THE NORM

by Gina Sestak

One of the many short-term jobs I held as an undergraduate involved end-of-term surveys. I think we were paid $15 per class to show up on the final day and pass around a list of questions through which students could rate the professor. I would collect the surveys when the class ended and turn them in.

I remember one bleak December day, in my third or fourth year. I'd been up most of the night working on a research paper. I rolled out of bed after two or three hours exhausted slumber in my hovel -- ahem, I mean, my lovely off-campus sleeping room, took a quick shower to wash away some of the grogginess, dressed in the same torn jeans and T-shirt I'd dropped on the floor the night before, grabbed my old coat, and ran the quarter mile or so to the Cathedral of Learning. [For anyone unfamiliar with the University of Pittsburgh, this is a tall beautiful Gothic building in which classes were held.] The 8 a.m. class was full of first-year students. They were all neatly dressed, clothes clean and pressed, hair combed, and faces washed. Alert. I passed out the surveys and leaned against the wall, too tired to stand. While the students filled them out, I amused myself by cracking the little sleeves of ice that had formed around my damp hair in the sub-zero temperatures outside, and I realized then that I would never be "normal" in the sense that these kids were normal. That's when I knew I had to skew the norm to make it more like me.

"How can you do that?" you may ask.

"By taking surveys," I reply.

And ever since, I've been filling out a lot of questionaires. I'm flattered that marketers want to know what kind of toothpaste I prefer, or whether I'd like to see dead loved ones' faces etched into their tombstones. I've participated in focus groups and even, when I was still married, spent three months filling out daily forms on sexual behavior. My ex- and I were one of only TEN heterosexual couples in the study. [Isn't that a scary thought?]

That's not to say I enjoy taking any survey. I hate the ones that try to make you chose a particular answer, like:

I firmly believe that (choose one):

a. George W. Bush is the greatest president ever, OR
b. We are all pawns of Satan, destined for everlasting torment in Hell.

I also detest wishy-washy choices that include the word "expectations" because that word is so subjective. Whenever I'm asked whether a particular event met my expectations, I'm tempted to write, "No. I expected it to be the stupidest, most boring half-hour of my life, but it was even worse. It EXCEEDED EXPECTATIONS!"

Do you fill out surveys? If so, do you think:
a. questionaires are really boring OR
b. this is the way that we can really change the world!!!

Let me know.

6 comments:

Joyce said...

I kind of like surveys. Except for those people at the mall who try to hijack you when you're doing important things like shopping for shoes.

I always do the ones on store receipts, you know, "tell us how we did and you can win a $1000 gift card."

I even like filling out the evil FAFSA (online form for student financial aid) every year. Not exactly a survey, but you still get to fill in dots.

Annette said...

I've always tended to avoid surveys, but you've given me a new perspective on them...swaying things my way. Hmm. I like it.

Actually, I am currently keeping an Arbitron radio ratings diary. I listen to very little radio, but I'm listening more this week just so I can fill in a few spaces and give the oldies stations a boost. So I guess I'm doing my part to skew the norm.

Nancy said...

My favorite survey question: If you say an acquaintance walking down the sidewalk, would you cross the street to avoid him? Tory, that's a question on one of your kind of surveys, I think.

My daughter could read in pre-school. ONe of her favorite things to read was those restaurant surveys you find betweeen the salt & pepper shakers at the kind of restaurants where precocious preschoolers are welcome. She filled them out all the time. Until she finally won a stuffed animal that was so big IT DIDN'T FIT INTO THE MINIVAN. We donated it to a school auction because I couldn't imagine having such a gigantic animal in the house all the time.

Joyce said...

Nancy, I hate to admit it but I've gone out of my way to avoid people like that. It's usually in the grocery store. I'll see someone I really don't want to get stuck talking to for ten minutes and I'll duck down the next aisle!

Terrible, I know.

Tory said...

Actually, the type of research I did involved open-ended questions, like, "Tell me why you chose to donate bone marrow to someone you didn't know."

Being a researcher, I used to do surveys out of obligation. However, like you, Gina, the close-ended ones drove me nuts. So now I make a distinction: I'll answer research surveys but not marketting and sales ones. I figure the corporations large enough to administer them won't make anything I like, anyway.

jacklyn said...

The arbitron diary was my favorite. How do I know what I'm listening to anyways? Like I'm going to write down the station while I'm driving or jogging.

I just filled in the stations that I remember the most but it was just bs. I listen to kiss the most and there is a new fm hot station but I don't know the call numbers so I don't write it down and I refuse to put down 97 I hate them that is all they have on at work!

PS: they only paid me $5 for a weeks work!