I was just finishing up an in-depth individual interview for our LGBTQ Adults and Tobacco Stigma study. I announced that I had one last question. “Do you have any feedback for me about the interview or the study?” We sometimes get responses like, “The survey was too long,” or “You didn’t ask me enough about [a specific topic]. This participant, a woman about my age, a lesbian of color, responded differently. “No. It was really good,” she said. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all.” She said this with an inflection of surprise. I paused for a moment. This was the first time during the interview that I really didn’t know what to say. I wanted to say something like, “That makes me really happy to hear, because it’s profoundly important for me as a researcher and as a person to affirm the dignity of others as they share their stories.” Instead, I responded with a weak, “Thank you for sharing that.”
But I knew in that moment that there was so much more to her statement. I wanted to begin the interview all over again. I wanted to know why she was so surprised that she had not been made to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to know when, where, how often she finds herself in situations where she is being paid to share her stories and experiences and thoughts, but feels uncomfortable doing so. I wanted to know why she chose to share that observation with me. As a researcher, I could have responded with, “Tell me more about that” or even “Have there been times when you did feel uncomfortable?” Instead, I responded with a weak, “Thank you for sharing that.”
Our study investigates not just tobacco-related stigma, but also various ways in which people who have been marginalized experience stigma in other aspects of their lives. In this moment, I was reminded, as a researcher and as a person, how important it is to affirm each person’s story. But I was also reminded how easy it is to silence a person simply because you are not quite sure how to ask them to say more.