Being a Linguist, Language on TV

“House of Cards” and the Art of Interviewing

I’ve started watching House of Cards on Netflix again, and several recent episodes have reminded me of some of the ways in which Journalists and Sociolinguists are a lot alike. Primarily it’s because both groups often use interviews to gain insight and information, but what really struck me is that usually the most interesting information isn’t always what they were searching for.

Sociolinguists (i.e. those who study language in the context of culture) often conduct interviews in the course of their research.

We can do ethnographic interviews, because if you want to know how language is used, you have to understand both the language AND what cultural information is relevant to fully appreciate and comprehend what’s being said.

We can also do sociolinguistic interviews, where we try to elicit various examples of a particular word or sound. These interviews can range from asking people to read pairs of words (think ‘cat’ and ‘bat’), to reading paragraphs, to recording a conversation between the interviewer and subject, or recording conversations between the subject and other people without the interviewer being present (making sure everyone knows they’re being recorded—ethics and personal rights are a big deal!).

If you’re not a journalist (like me), your understanding of journalistic interviews probably comes from being a media consumer. So I’m going to make some assumptions here, and say that journalists use interviews to explicitly ask a subject about something specific, and record their answers for later publication. Or sometimes interviews are used to gain a deeper understanding of a topic so that what is written or reported on is more comprehensive or correct.

Either way, Journalists and Sociolinguists seek out interview subjects, and approach them with a certain agenda, whether it’s questions they want to ask, or sounds/sound bites they want to hear.

But as I mentioned above, sometimes our subjects surprise us. Sometimes they don’t interpret the question the way we assumed they would. Sometimes they refuse to answer a question that we thought was innocuous. Sometimes, they tell stories or ask questions in return. Anytime this happens to me, what the subject says is always WAY more interesting than if they had just answered my prepared question. I saw this happen several times in the last few episodes of “House of Cards.” Yes, I know, it’s a scripted show and they’re doing it on purpose. But it’s based in reality, because if it’s happened to me, it must happen to lots of other people.

So what’s the lesson here?

If you do any kind of work where you interview people (as a journalist, a linguist, a market researcher, etc) and you come in with an agenda or list of questions, be wise enough to realize that going “off-topic” isn’t always a bad thing. That maybe “off-topic” is exactly where you want to be.


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