What Clowning Teaches about Rapport

A clown is a poet that is also an orangutan
– Attributed to various people.

One key to a good ethnographic interview is the ability to gain rapport with the person you are talking to. Rapport can be a mysterious thing, you are a stranger talking to another stranger asking questions and often taking a more intimate look into their lives than they might even share with friends or family.

One framework for thinking about interviews that I have comes from the physical theater theatrical clowning of the late Paris mine and teacher Jacques Lecoq. I learned this framework when I studied with Avner the Eccentric, a student of Lecoq’s. What Avner taught us one day was that according to Lecoq, there are several levels between apathy and enthusiasm that an audience experiences in a performance. If the performer can connect with the audience at that existing level of emotion, then the performer can move that audiences experience during the course of the performance between happiness and sadness. This means if the audience is in an apathetic mode and the performer starts overly enthusiastic, it is not infectious, it will actually push the audience’s emotions lower. A classic “trying too hard” scenario.

During an interview, an ethnographer’s job is actually the mirror image of that. Instead of us trying to control the emotions of the people we are talking to, we need to connect with them where ever they are on the empathy to enthusiasm scale, then let them move us up and down. Why is this important? There is a danger that in an effort to gain rapport, some people will give an enthusiastic reaction to many thing that the participant tells us. The intention of the interviewer in this case, is they want the person they are talking to to feel confident the interviewer is listening to them and to encourage them to go farther. The problem is, if you think of it in terms of Lecoq, that the interview can infuse the participant with a false enthusiasm for a topic. Essentially after gaining rapport, the interviewer can unwittingly lead the interview from any emotional standpoint.

So one way to build rapport is to connect with your participant at their level of enthusiasm for the task at hand and let them move you as the interview progresses and the rapport grows.

Warning, this entry may be somewhat apocryphal. I have tried to locate where I learned this in my various notebooks and diaries that I have kept over many years, and cannot.

Disclaimer: I frequently go back to previous entries to clarify points and edit the numerous typos I am sure you have found

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