Asking strangers for an interview

It’s intimidating to ask strangers for an interview. Well, that part is easy. Dealing with rejection is not.

For my research, I interview business owners. But, first, I have to get in touch with them, so I spend a lot of time sending emails, attending networking events, and approaching people directly at their shops.

Shoe Shopkeeper

Emailing is a tedious process, but it’s comfortable. You don’t have to deal with the rejection in person. You simply won’t get a reply – which is painful if it accumulates, but it’s impersonal. (For emailing tips, read this post.)

Networking is slow because you have to flow through many introductory conversations to figure out who fits your sample. Now, it’s more personal because their potential refusal will not be anonymous.

Walking into shops is very personal. You have to size up the shopkeeper and introduce yourself in a way that resonates on their terms. You have to instantly calibrate the mood, the stress in the air, the grittiness of the day, and their language ability before you even say a word.

Meanwhile, they’re doing the same thing to you: summing you up and deciding whether to give you their time.

We can’t blame shopkeepers for being wary. If you’re not a customer or supplier, you’re probably pestering them to take out a loan, fill up a boring survey, or hire your professional service. You represent a threat to their peace!

Try it as an experiment. Walk into a small shop and explain that you are doing research on small businesses and would like to interview the boss. Suddenly, customers will walk in requiring attention, shelves will need to be stocked, the phone will ring, the cash register will need to be staffed. Obviously, they have better things to do. The conversation is over!

It’s as good as saying: “Hi! Can you give me an hour of your time answering questions about your business which will have no immediate and direct benefit to you?”

So I changed my approach. It felt too awkward to be a researcher. I entered as a photographer.

They say a photo speaks a thousand words. Well, so does a camera. I had no further need to explain my research in awkward bumbling terms (“thesis” … “small business” … “doing interviews” … “government support” … “challenges” … “social networks” … “how things have changed since you started” …)

It was condensed:

“Can I take your photograph for a website?”

Voi la!


There were still polite rejections, but the rejections felt less personal and more reflective of their interest in opening up to a stranger. I figured that if they didn’t want a photograph, they probably wouldn’t want to spend time chatting – it filtered out people who were busy, reserved, and disinterested. But, if they were open to chatting, the sheer act of asking for a photo seemed to roll out a bridge to cross the moat. The responses were friendlier, perhaps because a photo doesn’t ask for much and expresses genuine appreciation.


A work of art created and dismantled every day!

As soon as they asked: what website is this? I’d explain my research. The resulting conversation was more natural, engaging, and giving. It felt good to reciprocate through the photoshoot, and sometimes I would also give a printed photo.

It took a long time to find an approach that worked, and this was it. Taking photos made the hunt for interviews more enjoyable, although the scorching heat and various refusals remained as forces to contend with in continuing from shop to shop to shop… but, I absorbed one important cliché: unless you ask, you will never get.


Rather than give up from feeling defeated, and rather than charging ahead boldly while ignoring the pain, acknowledging our emotions — while persisting, forces us to find solutions that suit the context.

If you want to see the photoshoot, you can browse my page or check out the blog, I’m planning to upload more photos over time, so feel free to hit the ‘like’ button to see the latest photos in your newsfeed. Enjoy!


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