One thing you have to realize when opting out and in, is that the lifestyle you dream about, and which you hopefully find a way to opt in to, isn’t going to be perfect. For years before opting out and in, I was very interested in people and what makes them tick, and I dreamed of being able to work in areas like psychology, social psychology, or sociology. And although this was what I secretly wanted to do, the path I chose after graduating from high school was quite different. My decision back then was based on a lot of factors other than what I was really interested in. But after years of dreaming and then gradually actually doing something about it, I am now a social scientist!
So this is my dream that I am living. Still, living my dream and working as a social scientist has its ups and downs. It’s not all rosy. It’s not all great. Sometimes it’s hard. It’s frustrating. And sometimes I have to do things that I don’t really like doing. But I also do things that I love and that I find absolutely fascinating. The important thing is that there are more good parts than bad; the balance needs to be in your favor.
But of all the things I do as a social scientist, there is one thing in particular that, hands down, is my absolute favorite. And that is interviewing people for my research.
When I worked on my PhD, I interviewed women about their opting out and in experiences, and right now I’m interviewing men about the same thing. I use a narrative approach to interviewing, and in practice that means that I really don’t have a lot of questions. I want my interviewees to talk freely about their experiences before, during, and after opting out. They get to decide what they want to tell me, in what order, and if there’s anything in particular that they want to focus on. If they’re worried what they’re telling my isn’t relevant or important enough, I quickly assure them that I am a sociologist, and that there is absolutely nothing they could say that wouldn’t be interesting to me, which is true. And it’s amazing, the stories they share with me are so rich; people who I have never met before and who I might never meet again. They talk openly and honestly and share their most personal thoughts and feelings with me, and I love hearing their stories. But more importantly what they’re giving me is a huge and valuable gift. Because they are willing to talk to me, I can actually do what it is that I am doing. And I am so grateful.
I just love the whole situation though. I say as little as possible in order to minimize my influence on the interviewee and his or her story. Often this is hard for me, partly because I’m a talkative one, but also because I recognize so much in what it is these people are talking about. It makes it hard not to turn the interview into a dialogue instead. I often want to share my experiences too, because I realize how much we actually have in common.
One thing that feels especially great about all of this is that my interviewees also seem to enjoy the interviews. For many it’s the first time they have really talked to anyone about their opting out and in experiences, and doing so gives them a chance to make sense of what it is they have gone through and why they made the decisions they did. Sometimes they tell me that the interview felt quite therapeutic, and often they thank me for the chance to talk about it, even though I am the one who should be thanking them. And that of course feels good, that they are also getting something out of it.
And it makes me think. We are all so busy going about our lives and making everything happen, that we rarely slow down long enough to really listen to people. I mean really hearing a person and not just hearing what we expect to hear or what we want to hear, which if you think about it is what often happens in regular conversation.
But in these interviews, I just sit quietly and I listen.
There is actually one person I know who does this in regular conversation: my father-in-law. When conversing with him there are very few interruptions. You take turns talking and when it’s your turn to talk he really listens and then he expects you to return the favor when it’s his turn to talk. The conversation is always good and interesting, it’s amazing how much you can learn when you really listen. But more than that, after having a conversation like this you feel seen and you feel heard. And that can really be a pretty great feeling.