For the entire second semester of my Freshman year, there was a man who confused me for another student. And for the entire semester, I was too afraid to correct him.
He would come up to me and strike up conversations about thing that I was completely obtuse about. My response each time was a nod and smile, and reason why I had to leave right at that moment.
The situation culminated to the moment when he asked if he could take photographs of myself and my significant other and our child. To which I responded with a vacant stare and an extremely awkward smile.
All of this could have been avoided if I had been brave enough to tell him right from the start that I was not the person that he thought I was. But instead, I didn’t want to put myself into an uncomfortable social situation and hence, placed myself in an even worse predicament.
And this fear of the uncomfortable made me think of the times I stumbled upon awkward situations while working on stories for my school’s paper. From cold calling strangers to conversing with higher officials, there were many moments where I felt my mind racing with worry and my body shaking with sweat.
For journalists, we have to go out and do what many American’s fear. Converse with complete strangers and not only that, but ask them to help us. Help us write a story, trust us that we won’t misspell your name and please don’t come running back accusing us of slander if it is not called for.
I think of my friends, whom many are too scared to even call people they know. Journalists have to make dozens of calls to people they don’t know, often prying into the intimate crevices of stranger’s lives.
I remember an investigative story I was working on about a restaurant owner who wasn’t paying his employees, who was also previously arrested for human trafficking. Calling the restaurant and realizing that I had to confront him was a cause of extreme stress and anxiety.
What if he found out where I lived? What if he starts yelling profanities? What if he has a family to take care of, and here’s me, getting ready to expose his business?
I mustered up the courage and called. Of course, he wasn’t there but I was able to have a conversation with a manager. Granted, it wasn’t pleasant because of the nature of the topic, but I was still having a conversation none the less.
It’s terrifying reaching out to strangers and putting yourself in strange situations with them. For the man who mistook me for another student, I didn’t want to put myself in the awkward position of correcting him. For many journalists, there are constant uncomfortable situations that occur with complete strangers.
However, these tense and strange moments that we share with random people are often the most memorable and the most real. There is a reason why journalists should never interview someone they know well, not just for objectivity reasons but because comfort may ironically put a wall between people.
There’s just something about the new and unfamiliar situation that comes along with strangers that helps a story move along in an unaltered sense. It’s just you and the other person. There’s no previous history, nothing to judge each other on, just one person to tell a story and the other person with an ear to listen to it.
That’s the simplistic beauty of journalism. Just you and one other person in a massive stinking heap of awkwardness. But in the end, it creates something real and tangible that will last a lifetime.