Tell me what you mean
Claire Lyons | Friday, September 8, 2023
If you were to ask me what my favorite thing about The Observer is, I’d probably tell you the standard answers: the people and the satisfaction of seeing our print editions scattered across the tri-campus.
And while that’s indubitably true, I’m writing about a (not-so) secret third thing: the interviews.
Normally, when you walk up to a stranger and start asking them random questions, they look at you a little funny (Like, why is this girl all up in my face?). But as soon as you say the magic words, their faces light up. It’s like you’re wrapped up in an even-more-magical invisible shroud that makes you, suddenly, incredibly interesting and much more worth their time. Suddenly, your curiosity is excusable. Suddenly, your questions will be answered.
But therein lies the rub. What kind of questions do you ask?
Serious journalists are very good at asking questions. They know exactly how to phrase a sentence to get somebody to break down or open up — especially about things they don’t want to talk about. They clarify. They are precise. They get to the heart of a problem in harrowing detail.
But as a former Scene editor and the current Viewpoint editor, I sometimes fear I might be a little too self-absorbed and concerned with my own opinion to really ask the right questions (I frequently ask “How are you?” like it’s a demand.).
Talking to people has never come naturally to me, which, unfortunately, makes this line of work very difficult. I never really know when exactly to jump into a conversation or the perfect thing to say to make a person feel better. So, when I dutifully trudge across the quad and muster up the courage to ask random strangers random questions, I want you to know it takes a considerable amount of effort and mental fortitude.
I’d like to say I’ve come a long way.
As a child, I was terribly shy. I was once strong-armed into an elementary school mock trial against my will, and even though I was only the bailiff in Three Little Pigs v. Big Bad Wolf, my hands shook the entire time I spoke: “Do you swear the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?”
Even now, I nervously pace back and forth in the hallway before class presentations. I have to psych myself up to ask a classmate for a pencil. When I am suddenly and painfully left speechless during an awkward silence on a first date, I frequently glance down at my hands to make sure they aren’t betraying me (yet again).
When I applied to Notre Dame, I wanted to be a psychologist. I took one college-level chemistry course and that changed faster than you can say “Go Irish!” but I know, at her core, 18-year-old Claire knew what she was doing. She wanted to be a psychologist because she wanted to understand the complex, undefinable matters of the human heart. She wanted to understand what moves us to do great things. I still do.
So, of course, I would end up at the newspaper.
Having the credential of “journalist” behind me somehow makes me braver. It made me approach somebody in the middle of a mosh pit during a thunderstorm to find out he’s probably the biggest Big Thief fan in the world and came all the way from Korea to Chicago to see them. It made me attend lectures that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise made the time for. It led me to talk to actors and directors about activism on campus and somehow led me to a questionable couch in Whisk’s six-man dorm.
Reporting for a story, getting an email about a Letter to the Editor or simply showing up to The Observer office allows me to break that initial, silent, deadly wall of shyness. It gives me a chance to connect with a person I wouldn’t otherwise know. I can ask “How are you?” and have somebody tell me what they really mean. During an interview, for one sweet, glorious moment, I get to know somebody better, and in turn, I help the world get to know them.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.