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Survey the USA
My observations on talking to 1,000 people
“Hi, how are you doing today? My name is Patrick and I’m a graduate student at the University of Colorado doing research into how much people value cell phone privacy. Do you have five or ten minutes to take a survey?”
During the summer of 2013, I spent six weeks traveling the United States surveying random people about their cell phone usage and privacy concerns. I said the above line over and over and over again. The point of the study was to determine what value people placed on their cell phone privacy (the result: people claim to care a lot about privacy and say they are willing to pay for it, but actually aren’t). In all I talked to 1086 people, 484 of whom completed the survey. About 2/3 of the time I would approach people in public areas like parks or pedestrian malls, and the other third I went door-to-door. Three other graduate students and I traveled to Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, and Portland for five days at a time. Here are some of the things I noticed about Americans and America during my time surveying.
1. Rich people didn't want to take the survey. It didn’t matter what part of the country we were in, going to rich neighborhoods and knocking on a door often meant getting it slammed in my face. I once had 17 people in a row decline to take my survey. In a poor neighborhood, having three people decline in a row would be unusual.
2. The West Coast was the most unfriendly. This surprised me. When I started I thought the farther west you went the nicer the people got. From the east coast to the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains this is true, but the relationship breaks down once you get to the Western Seaboard. San Diego and Portland had the lowest door-to-door uptake rate. A lot of times people were annoyed that I was bothering them, which I rarely encountered in other cities. I have no idea why this was the case.
3. Black Americans were the most friendly and willing to help. I noticed this first in Atlanta and it repeated in Philadelphia and Chicago. Blacks almost always took the survey and were often very talkative. One unexpected benefit to the job was exposure to a part of American culture that I was not very familiar with.
4. Overall I was impressed with the generosity of the typical American. It amazed me how many people took the survey. In public areas, around 60% would take it. Although I was allowed to give people $5 if they initially declined, I rarely used this option. The average person was more than willing to give up some of their free time for a total stranger. I'd be interested to know how this compares to other countries.
5. Local liquor laws were an absurd patchwork of rules and regulations. Every city went had its own rules. In Denver, grocery stores could only sell beer that had 3.2% alcohol or less. Private liquor stores could sell everything else, but each business could only have one location in the state. In Atlanta, grocery stores could sell all beer and wine. In Philadelphia (my personal favorite), private liquor stores sold wine and hard alcohol, state-run distribution centers sold beer by the case, and bars were allowed to sell six packs. In Chicago, the holy grail of alcohol buying, all stores have all liquor. That’s right, Walgreens will sell you a bottle of Jaeger. In San Diego, beer and wine were sold in grocery stores and private stores sell hard alcohol. Finally, Portland had state-owned liquor stores but grocery stores can sell beer and wine. It was quite an adventure figuring out how each state worked.
6. People care about economics. A lot. I first noticed this while skiing. Whenever I tell people on the chairlift I’m an econ professor they often got excited and either asked me my opinion on a current event or tell me theirs. This summer was no different. People always wanted to know what I thought about the current state of the American middle class and China.
7. American regionalism is on the decline. I rarely heard a southern accent in Atlanta. Philadelphians weren’t that unfriendly (although once, in a high-income Philly neighborhood, a man opened his door and yelled “CLIPBOARD!” at me and slammed the door). A lot of people I surveyed in every city were originally from other parts of the country. Now that so many people move, I think we are losing a lot of the regional idiosyncrasies that used to dominate American culture. This isn’t to say that I didn’t notice regional differences, I certainly did. They just weren’t as present as I thought they would be.
8. Philadelphia had the most civic pride. Traveling the country and knocking on people’s doors lets you learn a snapshot of their life; what they decide to have in their entryway. Some choose family photos; others have mirrors on the wall. People in every city would have memorabilia for local sports teams, but a good 25% of Philadelphians had Eagles paraphernalia in their entryway. To be fair, the Eagles had been a relatively good team in the decade leading up to 2013, but this was before their Super Bowl run. Still, I couldn’t believe how many flags, banners, jerseys, etc. for the Eagles I saw just inside the threshold of respondents’ homes.
9. There are a lot of lonely parents taking care of young children. Fairly often I would come across a doorbell that had a handwritten note on it to the effect of “baby is sleeping, please knock”. I would gently knock, and to my surprise, the person behind the door almost always took the survey. They also usually wanted to chat about my research and what I was doing, to the point that it was clear they were having trouble filling the hours. Parents with children in the 3-10 range would often use the opportunity to practice with their children on how to behave, which made perfect sense given the controlled circumstances of the interaction. Parents would say to their kid, “ok, daddy is going to talk to the nice man now. Please be quiet” and so on. I think the best part of this, no matter what city I was in, was that I was always described as “the nice man” by parents talking to their kids. Do parents convene once a year at some conference to decide what terminology to use when they are talking to strangers in front of their kids? If so, what else do they decide? One of my favorite moments was when a mom then had to explain to her children what “research” was, which is actually pretty difficult to teach to a 5-year-old.
10. Everyone has a story. Often, I would survey someone and move on. Other times I would talk to the person for a half hour. People would invite me inside and give me homemade lemonade or a snack. I would meet people who traveled the world right after meeting someone who had never left the USA. I surveyed millionaires who offered me jobs and homeless people who asked for a few bucks. People bragged about their children and grandchildren. Others were just strange.
All-in-all, the best summer job I’ve ever had.