One afternoon, I walked over to Strozier Library with a notebook, approached some of the students standing around outside and asked each of them, “What do you want to say?”
I explained that I am a staff writer for College Magazine, and I needed to write an article with quotes. So they could say whatever they wanted. They could tell me about a dream they had, a good soup recipe, mention a favorite pet that passed away or talk about classes, politics, love, fear.
“What do you want to say?” I asked.
I had sunglasses with me. It was pretty bright out that day, and I took them off when introducing my topic and myself. Most everyone seemed confused by the prompt.
“Anything!” I said. One guy asked if he could be explicit. I told him of course; I’m not about to censor anyone.
The 10 people I spoke to showed varying degrees of hesitation. But, I did notice something. Whenever I put my sunglasses back on and waited for a response, people’s answers were much more forthcoming. They smiled more, their posture relaxed and they seemed less worried about giving a “good enough” response rather than an honest one.
Halfway through interviewing these random students, I figured out that maintaining eye contact actually hindered their responsiveness. I began putting my glasses on right after finishing my opening lines. The sooner I put them on, the sooner people opened up.
When given platform to say anything, here’s what these 10 Florida State University students had to say.
1. “I’ve been thinking about making bread lately.” –Flannery Bryant
She sat alone. She seemed very hesitant to participate at all. The broadness of the question seemed to make it harder for her to think of something. This is the longest I went without putting my sunglasses back on. When I leaned back with my sunglasses finally on, she started to loosen up and said this quote. She seemed surprised that one sentence was all I needed.
2. “I feel that Donald Trump [will] be a good president for our country because he can provide resources. He can prevent shortages. He can help the environment and protect the citizens of the US.” –”Mocha Hunter”
I approached “Mocha Hunter,” asking if he had a few minutes. He took one ear bud out of his ear as I began telling him the premise of my questioning. He asked, like many others, what he was quoting about, and gave a few examples. “Hold on real quick,” he said to me. He then proceeded to tell the person he was still talking to on the phone that he’d call him back. I had been talking to him for several minutes.
“I can say anything? It can be political?” It took him a little while to collect his thoughts, but after finishing his statement, “Mocha Hunter” looked pleased.
3. “There’s a Socrates quote I like, ‘Love, affection and attention not given freely isn’t worth having.’” –Christopher Ulrich
The sunglasses effect seemed to lessen with Christopher Ulrich and the two friends surrounding him. Is it because people naturally seek comfort and approval from their social circle? Instead of quiet planning, they joked out loud with each other until reaching finality.
4. “Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” –Lexi Stephan
She didn’t actually say it to me. Christopher prompted her with ideas, and she’d laugh and say, “Yeah, that.” Lexi told me that this was a sentence she has said before in her life, and that this was fine to use as her quote.
5. “I wrote this on my bathroom mirror: Right now some Ivy League f–k is working harder than me.” –Reeve Markowski
We took a few minutes to get this exact quote. He didn’t have too much to say about why that he wrote this on his bathroom mirror. With the encouragement of his friends, he stood by his words.
6. “I’ll say that I hope I make it to Friday.” –Amber Smith
Her friend next to her laughed.
7. “This is a quote by Daniel Turnham: ‘Make no small plans for they have no magic to stir men’s blood.’” –Kaleb McClellan
Kaleb, sitting at a table outside Strozier with three other students of the National Alliance for Mental Illness, told me Burnham was an architect and an important figure to him. I googled the quote later, and the real quote reads as such: “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.”
8. “I wish I could be a writer.” –Jennifer Samanders
After introducing the concept of this article to Jennifer, another student at the table outside Strozier, I turned to her and reprised the question, “What do you want to say?” to personalize her experience.
9. “‘Never cry for money because money never cries for you.’ I lost my watch on a plane and I flipped a sh-t but then I got over it.” –Christian Adeleke
This made all his friends at the table laugh. He took some time to explain how he wanted his quote put together. He was the first person to use someone else’s words and then elaborate on them. His friend, Nick, really seemed to enjoy Christian’s vernacular “flip a sh-t” as opposed to the common “flip my sh-t.” Christian stood firm in his word choice.
10. “I think people should really take the time to familiarize themselves with various mental illnesses.” –Nick Lopez
Nick had the most time of anyone to consider what his response would be. When I finally turned to him for his quote, he took no time to answer me. He quickly and confidently responded.
It was unfortunate that, the day I left my wallet in the car, I interviewed a table of people selling delicious looking cookies. In part to get them to talk to me, I promised to make a shout out for their organization, the National Alliance for Mental Illness. This might have influenced Nick’s choice for his quote.
At the end, everyone I spoke to ended smiling. They, after listening to their quote read back to them, laughed or nodded in approval. They seemed to find it easier to speak when not making direct eye contact, but also found strength in the people that accompanied them.
When asked how I would respond, I told people what has been on my mind for days now:
Any restaurant that has an industrial dishwasher should not be serving food exclusively on Styrofoam plates.
There are lots of platforms to pose your random, passing thought. But these platforms have certain conventions and restrictions. Twitter has a character limit. On Facebook, you might want to censor yourself more than usual due to your multiple family Facebook friendships. Anonymous boards on the internet let you speak as unfiltered as you want. I sought something in the middle.
I think there’s something inherently different about saying “Anything!” on the Internet versus saying it to someone looking right at you. And the question, “What do you want to say?” is surprisingly intimate. I’m not making small talk. It’s so easy to speak your mind when you can type, review, retype, post and even delete. In the face of this intimacy and initial hesitance, people still opened up, even if that wasn’t their intention.
We all talk about how social media, phones, computers, screens of all kinds disrupt the communal feeling of existing in public, but when faced with an intimate moment, people will still connect. Even if you have to wear your sunglasses to make it happen.