Ep. 25 Talking to screens | Some Scuffs

Relearning how to be human

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Written by Grace Yeoh

For the longest time, I thought I knew how to be a good journalist. 

And then the circuit breaker forbade me from meeting people in person. 

When the Singapore government made the announcement on April 3 that the nation would begin the indefinite circuit breaker four days later, I scrambled to imagine my new normal without physical contact. 

This meant I had to conduct all interviews virtually. I’m a little averse to change, but even as I rebelled internally, I tried to reassure myself that this fundamental change in the way I did my job would ultimately prove inconsequential. After all,  I’d still get my interview answers. 

What could I possibly lose without physical contact? 

Early on in the circuit breaker, the first time this disconnect came through was over a Whatsapp conference call with Mrs Lee, who’s a victim of domestic abuse, and her social worker. 

Just before we spoke, I was warned her connection was unstable. Well, that changes things, I thought. I would’ve appreciated a heads up. A wonky connection meant I had to get to the heart of the story ASAP, before I lost her focus. But there was no way I could immediately dive into the domestic abuse she’d endured from her husband for 13 years, without it feeling like a callous violation. 

We eventually got there, and I told her, I’m going to ask you questions about your abuse now. I need you to give me concrete and detailed examples, as best as you can. Anytime you feel uncomfortable or you need to take a break, just tell me. Okay? I said this before our conversation began, but no harm repeating important things. She said okay. 

But it was not okay. 

Almost every time she broached a significant anecdote, like how her husband would smash her cosmetic or shampoo bottles in his rage until they were bent out of shape or the time he snatched her spectacles off her face, the line broke up. Her social worker had to reconnect us. While he reached her, I jotted down notes of where she left off. After less than a minute (although it felt like 10), I finally got her on the line and asked her to repeat herself. 

The second time is usually different: people don’t just tend to summarise their points when they repeat themselves, but their emotions are also muted. The joy, sadness, fear, anger in their initial answer is less palpable. It’s like she was reading off a checklist of her talking points, consciously dispassionate as she raced to unearth her trauma before her terrible data connection cut her off once more. I told her to take her time, it’s okay, no rush, but the line broke again and I forced myself to stifle my frustration while her social worker reconnected us. 

I can’t be certain that Mrs Lee would be comfortable meeting me in person—my preferred interview style—without the circuit breaker, but at least I could push for that option. The longer we spoke, the more I was painfully aware that this interview would be better if we could physically interact. 

In person, for example, it’s easier to hold space for someone to recollect their difficult thoughts and feelings, simply by sitting next to them. You don’t have to say or do anything; physical presence is enough. Over the phone or video call, ‘holding space’ can come across as dead air, unless I explicitly tell them to take their time, which doesn’t have the same effect. 

The absence of non-verbal visual cues only made its significance more pronounced. And with the added pressure of getting her answers before technology failed us for the N-th time, we’re in heightened interview mode, where the goal was to get good answers, not have a good conversation. 

She continued elaborating on her story, like the perfect interviewee, and I told her I had what I needed for now. Afterwards, I transcribed her interview and sent it to her, highlighting all the bits where I needed more details. She studiously filled them in, giving me better content, like a student finishing their homework. 

I got the answers I needed, but I didn’t get the interview I wanted. 

It’s all very clinical. 

I was so thoroughly unsatisfied. 

It’s possible to have a great interview over phone or video call, which I have done and will continue to do, but even the best ones lack the warmth of physical interactions. 

I miss sitting beside my interviewees to get them to feel more comfortable. Based on my scant experience, looking in the same direction can make someone feel like they’re talking to a friend rather than an interviewer. I miss helping my interviewee feel safe around my energy by letting down my guard and being more relaxed around them, hoping they absorb and mirror my laidback energy. 

But by far the thing I miss about face-to-face interviews is, ironically, the end—when I realise how gratifying and humbling that two human beings, often strangers, made an effort to show up, to be near each other, to let the other into their physical and psychological space for a few hours. 

Up till the end of Phase 1 on June 18, my final ‘interaction’ with interviewees involved pressing a red button to hang up or experiencing the awkward two-second silence as we fumbled to exit the Zoom meeting, all at once left facing a blank screen. 

Without non-verbal visual cues, I only had words. You’d think this would be a writer’s dream, but words aren’t as meaningful without context—and context, in this case, meant being able to see someone’s body language while they were speaking. 

Part of active listening involves picking up on implicit signs of someone’s comfort level, but I wasn’t afforded the luxury of seeing them cross their arms or furtively scratch their ear to indicate distrust or discomfort. Even over Zoom, these cues don’t come through as viscerally because the screen acts as a barrier. 

When I spoke, I had to phrase my questions more succinctly and intentionally, making every word count. I had to cut out the white noise, lest I lost my interviewee’s attention span to terrible data connection or general COVID brain sludge. 

Yet one thing remained the same: The core of a successful interview is being able to be as vulnerable with your interviewees as you require them to be with you. 

And when words were all I had, I became a better thinker, listener, and  journalist.

What do we lose without physical contact? 

I don’t know if I’ve adequately described how peculiarly detached this job, whose crux lies in human interaction, has felt in the last two months. 

At the halfway mark, I felt like we lost a part of our humanity.

Slightly more than two months into a new normal, I’d like to think we’re redefining the things that make us human.

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