What Falling in Love Can Teach Us About Ethnography

insights love questions

The “36 questions to fall in love” are everywhere right now, an old hypothesis by psychologist Arthur Aron to “accelerate” the falling in love process. As Mandy Le Catron says in her viral New York Times article, she got hooked after being burned in a relationship, and she decided to “turn to science, hoping there was a way to love smarter”.

To me, purposefully falling in love with a near-stranger doesn’t necessarily sound like loving “smarter” – it sounds like creating a sense of control and immediacy around love. When I first heard about the 36 questions, I thought, “Well, duh. That’s what we do in ethnography” (except without, hopefully, the falling in love part). The idea of controlling immediate intimacy and understanding is what makes modern-styled accelerated ethnography work, and many of the principles that we use are ones that I saw echoed in the 36 questions to fall in love.

Here are some ways that I found the 36 questions to fall in love could help during ethnography:

  • To start, participants have to be willing to be in that room – either to “fall in love” or to act as ethnography respondent. This is small but important, which you can appreciate if you’ve ever had a reluctant respondent (or one who felt under-paid).
  • Increase intimacy of the conversation as you go, to accelerate the process while ensuring everyone’s comfort as you get to that deeper level of conversation.
  • Use open-ended questions and conversation starters. This gets the respondent (or the love-seeker) to guide the conversation themselves – underlining their priorities and getting their real story.
  • Sprinkle in projective techniques to provoke different, thoughtful conversation.
  • Leverage the beautiful power of silence. Of course, researchers don’t want to make our respondents fall in love with us, but it can be quite useful for digging deeper in the conversation.
  • Foster focused conversations between others. The questions often ask the love-seekers to share something, then get a response to what they’ve shared from their partner – getting to a place of self-driven conversation similar to running discussions or groups.

Of course, it’s logical – ethnography is based on psychological principles, as are the 36 questions. But next time I’m with a respondent, I know I’ll be thinking about the 36 questions: How can I use Aron’s love-science to get to a deeper level of insight?

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