This is a guest post from Jozica Kutin. Jozica is a researcher and PhD candidate at RMIT University, Melbourne.
At the end of each research interview I tell the person I’ve interviewed how appreciative I am of their time and story, and how I hoped that their goals and dreams work out for them. In this one interview, I then felt the tears welling up in my eyes. My voice started to do that thing it does when you know you’re about to cry, my face started going red. I thought, I’m supposed to be the cool calm and objective one, not the soppy cry-ey one. I think my participant would have noticed the tear covered eyes, the choked up voice, the red face. Are researcher’s supposed to cry?
I was trained as a psychologist, so the poker face was de rigueur, and as a psychologist, you’re not supposed to cry (well not in front of clients). Doctors and business professionals aren’t supposed to cry either: especially women. It can be viewed as “unprofessional”, or that you’re not “objective”. Well it happened to me, about 20 years ago, a young women that I was assessing at a drug and alcohol clinic was telling me about her drug use history, about her childhood, and then about how her baby had died after childbirth. The memory of her in my mind, what she said, and my emotions are as clear now as it was 20 years ago. On this occasion the more I empathy I conveyed the more I felt I was “losing control” of my emotions. I remember, however, that she was not emotional; she had told this story many a time, at many assessments, to many workers. My reaction then felt even more odd, and out of context.
Context is important. Sometimes even in the ‘right’ context, say at a funeral, your crying is not right: I’m crying at my friend’s father’s funeral. I’d never met the guy. I didn’t know what he was like. I wasn’t going to miss him. So I would have looked a bit ridiculous. But I cried nonetheless. A death, of any sort, pain or suffering by anyone, even research participants, is a pain we can all relate to, a pain that triggers emotions.
Public crying is the most difficult, because typically people don’t respond or comfort strangers who are crying. My most profound public crying experience was at the departure lounge at Melbourne Airport, waiting to board my flight back to the Netherlands. I had spent the last 10 days with my grandmother (Baki) who was dying in hospital from ovarian cancer. I said my final goodbye; my uncle and aunty dropped me off at the airport. They returned to the hospital to learn that my Baki had died: she had died once we all had left the hospital (now I’m crying again as I write this). My phone rang at the departure gate. It was quiet. I answered. I sobbed loudly while I was on the phone and after; trying to pull myself together for the flight. Not one person came up to me to ask if I was ok. Crying in public like that makes you feel very alone.
Do researchers cry?
It’s not supposed to happen. You are supposed to be this objective data collecting machine. When I worked as a researcher at a youth drug and alcohol centre, people would comment “Oh that must be tough”. Well it kind of wasn’t. I was sitting at my desk, just crunching numbers, collecting data from other practitioners, and publishing papers and reports. And even though the findings were devastating, I didn’t have the young woman in front of me, telling me her story, a story of challenge, abuse, self-harm, drug use, and hopefully hope. I never spoke to clients or listened to their stories, it wasn’t part of my job. (Read my co-author and colleague Kat Daley’s work—her supervisor cried at the launch of her book.)
My PhD research is exploring how economic abuse manifests in young adult relationships. My first paper was based on the analysis of ABS survey data from 17,050 adults. The next phase of my PhD takes me out of my analytical comfort zone: narrative interviews with young adults who have experienced economic abuse. Their narratives usually start with the money issues, but these are never in isolation from the emotional manipulation and abuse, the control, the threat of physical or verbal abuse, and in some cases savage physical attacks. For the majority, it’s the first time they have told their stories— they are not engaged in the service systems—they’ve responded to a research recruitment advertisement. It’s the first time too that I’m hearing their stories. Young women terrorised, living in war-zone conditions, but living with hope that the relationship will work, that their children will have an intact family. They all have hopes for the future. They all have goals and are kicking them, despite—or because of—the experiences they have had. This is when it gets emotional for me, I’ve realised. Every young person should be filled with their dreams and hopes for the future, not abuse, violence and control.
Research interviewing can be emotionally distressing. I suspect most people don’t tell their supervisors or colleagues that they may have cried or choked up because of embarrassment or shame.
There are important ethical and supervisory mechanisms that need to be in place when you are researching sensitive topics. Students, supervisors and seasoned researchers shouldn’t fear crying or tearing up in the research interview. If in doubt, read Kathleen Cowles’ powerful work. We hold back discussion of this issue, as much as we try to hold back the tears: trying to be “big” researchers. The possibility of crying in this context needs to become part of the discussion around “managing interviewer risk”, beyond the advice of “whatever you do, don’t cry”.
So if the toe wigging and tongue biting are not working, and you find yourself tearing up during an interview, it’s important not to be hard on yourself. While you may think your “research participant” might find it odd, or you find it embarrassing, it is often viewed in a positive light by the person that you’re with. Interviewer crying reminds and confirms for us, and the people that we are interviewing, that what they have endured was a traumatic and emotional experience. It’s not just data, it’s their full and emotional life.
I’m curious if other PhDs have cried during an interview when a comment touched a raw nerve. I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. How was crying received by the participant? Did you tell your supervisor/colleague/mentor and how did they react?
Image credit: Flickr Commons: Guy Mayer