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Interview as game theory

March 21, 2010

I’ve never had self-esteem issues in the classical sense, but I have always been insecure about — or at least tried to be sensitive to — what others think of me.

The apotheosis of this occurred at the end of high school. I had spent all of sophomore and about half of junior year dating someone and, in a fashion not atypical for a teenage boy, cloistered myself completely from all of my other friends. When that relationship ended in January of 11th grade, I spent the rest of my high school career, in addition to feeling sorry for myself, trying to make up for lost time with all the people I should have been becoming close with (and who were becoming close with one another all that time I was ignoring them). Though I’ve lost touch with many of them, I remain grateful for how quickly they welcomed me back into the fold.

At the end of senior year, we all bought yearbooks and, again not atypically, passed them around for one another to sign. I had known some of the people in my group of friends for only a year or two and others since I was a small child, but I was unsure of where I stood with any of them after my year and a half of isolation.

So when I received a yearbook to sign, staring at the blank page before me, I was unsure of how much to write. It was analogous to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, as we acted simultaneously (I would have a person’s yearbook while that person would have mine, neither seeing what the other wrote until the tomes were swapped back) and, perhaps childishly, my offering depended on what I thought the other would offer. That is, if the other person was only going to write a sentence or two (“Nice knowin’ ya! H.A.G.S!”), I didn’t want to embarrass myself by gushing for half a page about That One Time in Geometry, but if they were going to put together a sincere, 1,000-word treatise on the history of our relationship, I didn’t want to sell them short with a couple flimsy cliches.

In most (and maybe all; I don’t have my yearbook handy) of the cases — fearful of being seen as a doting, overly sentimental loser (I was 18, after all) — I opted for the short and sweet option. And with very few exceptions, when I got my yearbook back, I would see that the person for whom I had written a few vague sentiments had poured his or her heart out to me. Maybe some thought I was the sort who would write something long, and they didn’t want to be a dick. Maybe some saw what other people were writing and didn’t want to be an outlier. Probably, though, at least a few of them actually felt strong affection toward me, and in those cases, I feel kind of shitty that, because of my own insecurity, I never ended up letting these people know the affection was reciprocal. (More accurately, because I don’t know anyone’s motivations for writing what they wrote, I felt shitty every time I got my yearbook back and saw someone had written something much more heartfelt and just longer than what I had written, and I feel that way every time I’ve opened my yearbook since, though it’s been a while.)

I do have a point here beyond airing my teenage diffidence. Basically, even the warmest, most sincere people will obfuscate their true feelings because of insecurity, and it’s not just teenagers who are insecure. This fact has become obvious quickly even in off-the-record meetings.

First, people are unwilling to talk about themselves very much, fearful of coming off as arrogant. If one talks himself up, he might reason, and everyone else plays it cool, he’ll appear in the book as cocky and full of himself. Nobody wants to be that guy.

But then, with only a few exceptions, many are hesitant to gush about others, lest the favor not be returned and they end up as ancillary characters in this narrative. For as selfless as the people I’m writing about can be sometimes, they’re still human, and many are tired of wallowing in obscurity.

So far, this has not been a difficult phenomenon to handle. When I sense this sort of paralysis of adulation, my usual course of action is to mention what others have said, knowing the hesitance is rooted in uncertainty. That is, if Person A seems guarded, I talk about what Persons B, C, D, et al have been saying. It usually works pretty well.

An even more effective strategy that I’ve yet to really exploit is simply having a few people present at once. In addition to simply being more comfortable around friends (rather than one-on-one with me, practically a stranger), knowing how others are interacting with me puts them at ease.

Ultimately, I’m still sort of feeling things out, and I have to approach everyone a bit differently. This is why I didn’t rush into interviews. With that said, though, it seems about time to start with some preliminary on-the-record sessions.


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