“Obvious” Questions & Thinking Like a Child

By DONNA MARIA ROMEO, PhD.

Have you ever found yourself talking to someone about a seemingly mundane subject, such as “your morning cup of coffee routine,” only to discover to your surprise that he or she doesn’t have a morning cup of coffee routine? As a die-hard coffee drinker, you learn in amazement that this other person relies on Diet Coke as a way to get their day going. Coffee is just not something that is part of their lived experience.

So, why the surprise? Perhaps you’re surprised because you thought you knew this person yet suddenly realize that maybe you really don’t know him or her that well after all. Perhaps you’re surprised because you thought that since you both share the same job title at the same company, and live in the same small town, that you must also share the same lifestyle, habits, preferences, wants, dreams. Perhaps you’re surprised because your closely held assumption — that others in your social circle must also be “just like me,” doesn’t align with reality.

Anthropologists refer to the belief that everyone is motivated and behaves, thinks, feels, and sees the world in similar ways as “naïve realism.” It’s easy for us to make these assumptions, especially when we consider the people who live, work, shop, and play within our shared social circles and environments (e.g. the people in my neighborhood, the people at my office, the people at my church). Yet, are we really so sure that we know who these people are, and how they think and feel?

I’ve seen this assumption applied many times to the people who buy brands, products, and services — the customer. Is the customer really “just like me,” sharing the same vision, hopes, dreams, wants, needs and perspectives on the world? In answer to this question, I like to quote Mark Twain: “I’ve found that common sense ain’t so common.” What each of us holds as common knowledge, and truth, about the world may not be equally held by others. The old saying is true — you are not your customer.

As human beings, we do share much in common with one another, yet there are also meaningful differences between us. These differences emerge from our diverse socio-cultural, economic, educational, occupational, political, and religious backgrounds. Sometimes, these differences are subtle, yet remain important nonetheless.

Getting Beyond Our Assumptions

To really understand the perspective of others, we must first get beyond ourselves, moving beyond our own assumptions AND our own knowledge base (that is, our “common sense” and what we think we know about the world).

Anthropologists in a foreign culture must assume they know little, if anything, about this culture; they try to maintain an open mind, and adopt a position of childlike curiosity. There is a constant need for active observation, active listening, and active questioning. Trouble emerges when we stop asking the “obvious” questions and start assuming that we already understand the things we are observing and hearing.

Young children don’t presume to hold prior knowledge about the world. They are not afraid to ask silly or “stupid” questions, and don’t worry about not looking like an expert. Thinking like a child can encourage us to ask the “obvious” questions that need asking. It can help us avoid making assumptions, and filling in the gaps with what we already think we know to be true.

Asking the obvious questions while maintaining a sense of childlike curiosity can truly open up the world to us — allowing us to see people, places, and things in a fresh light. One of the exercises included in the RAC Changing Mindsets workshop is called Think Like a Child. For the exercise, class participants are paired up to interview each other on a mundane topic such as “what is coffee?” Class participants are instructed to assume no prior knowledge on the subject and encouraged to maintain a stance of childlike curiosity.

“What is Coffee?”

“What is coffee” is an exercise that was first developed in collaboration with fellow anthropologists Patti Sunderland and Rita Denny during my early days as a consumer anthropologist at Whirlpool Corporation. Thanks to them, I have continued asking others, “What is coffee?” (see Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, 2007).

To some, it may seem like a silly question and big waste of time to ask others “What is coffee?” Coffee is, after all, a very straight forward topic, right? Not a lot of differences in the meaning of coffee, so why bother asking the obvious?

If I wanted to understand the wants, needs, and behaviors of the coffee customer, can’t I just start with the assumption that we all share the same concept of coffee? What it is? How it’s served? When & where and with whom is it consumed? The answer is a resounding “no.” Anyone who has spent time in other places such as Italy, for example, understands that coffee is perceived and experienced very differently than it is in America.

In Italy, coffee is an evolved art form. It’s called ‘caffè’ and always refers to a small cup of espresso served in a small, thick walled espresso cup. It’s frequently drunk down in one gulp while standing in a ‘bar’ next to others who are also doing the same. Caffè can be served in many different ways, such as: caffè ristretto (‘restricted’ with about ½ the amount of water of a regular espresso), caffè doppio (a ‘double’ shot of espresso), caffè corretto (‘corrected’ with a shot of liquor), caffè macchiatto (‘spotted’ with a drop of milk) , caffè lungo (‘long’ with a bit more water added to the cup). The cup of coffee most like our own here in the US is ‘caffè Americano’ (with even more water added and served in a larger cup). Never ask for a “latte” unless you don’t mind drinking a glass of steamed milk instead of coffee. Also, never order a cappuccino (espresso with steamed milk, named after the hood of the robes worn by Capuchin monks) after 11:00 am — it’s just not done.

So, next time you have a chance to interact with another, try to think like a child, maintain a sense of curiosity, and ask those “obvious” questions that need asking without fear of looking silly. You might actually learn something new in the process.

We greatly appreciate Donna Romeo sharing her insights with our educator readers. We look forward to hearing more from her in the near future. Dr. Romeo is founder and principal of Romeo Anthropological Consulting (R.A.C.), specialists in Cultural Immersion & Customer Odyssey workshops. RAC offers organizations a passport to discover the culture of the customer for an improved customer experience. Through their customized workshops & custom ethnographic research, they empower organizations to transform the way that they connect and understand the customer, ignite passion for world-class service, and uncover new strategic opportunities for their brand.

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