Dear Steve Portigal …

by Dave on October 25, 2009

HHHH Hash 1617

Playing Chicken on the Bhaktipur Highway

(Author’s note: Steve Portigal is a professional colleague and an industry expert in ethnographic research. I wrote to him earlier this week with a request not dissimilar from what I’ve written below. )

I’m feeling overwhelmed by my environment and I need your advice.

I start my day by cramming myself into a mini-bus with 20 other people. It’s likely that someone will have to sit on my lap or I will have to sit on theirs. I weigh 200 pounds so I’m not making any friends. I just smile like an idiot and apologize to everyone.

Half the time, I get lost of my way to work because I don’t speak the local language (although I’m trying). I’m now functionally illiterate, too. What few signs I can read are written in an odd form of English that is slowly working its way into my written language and extending my sentences to unbelievable lengths. The voice in my head now has an accent and waggles its head when it agrees. I think I confuse my work colleagues whenever I talk.

On top of it all, there’s all this data flying past. Like any good researcher, I know I could be learning something, but everything feels like it goes past too quickly. I’m just happy to get home at the end of the day without getting hit by traffic.

What should I do?

Signed, Dazed and Confused in Kathmandu

You are in a seriously challenging new situation and maybe you need to give yourself the opportunity to step back, experience, absorb, sense-make in the background, etc.

I remember the Colin Funk presentation at CanUX where we first met, and he talked about two techniques, speeding up so you don’t have to think (in your case, it could be – photograph everything and sort it out later and let your non-thinking lizard brain direct you) and the other being slow down so you aren’t trying to super-over-think-everything – (which in this case could be – find the single emblematic picture, or the summary blog post that crystallizes it – freeing yourself from the lifeblogging requirement and letting yourself experience and THEN go back and capture)

To the point of having multiple passes at the thing to capture, I remember being in Bali in the back of the van with my camera out but most of the stuff I saw that excited me was the stuff that I saw too late but then I made a point of looking for later – like people walking around with helmets on – having seen it once, I could then decide to photograph it later, and having photographed it a couple of times it kind of got crossed off my checklist. This is obviously a personal style thing, what works for each of us.

I would also think about what makes you feel happy/stimulated/intrigued/relaxed – as opposed to drowning/frustrated/overwhelmed/disappointed – if you’re in the first mode, you’re probably doing what’s best for your analytical and synthetic brain, because it’ll feel RIGHT.


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