The Value of Vox Pops

By Osama Al Sharif

In all my years as a journalist, from starting out as a junior reporter right up to becoming a senior editor, I never forgot one simple piece of advice given to me by an American mentor: talk to taxi drivers, waiters, and barbers if you really want to understand what’s going on in a country.

I’ve interviewed countless heads of states, royals, government ministers, and highflying businessmen. Each time I’ve always checked to see if their outlook matched that of everyday people. That’s how you get to the essence of a story. It’s not enough to get a scoop by interviewing someone with political or economic power; you have to counterbalance their statements with what’s happening on the ground around them.

Veteran reporters say if you’re visiting a town for a short spell, talk to taxi drivers. If you’re staying for few days, talk to waiters.But if you’re going to be there for a while,then talk to barbers. Well I made a point of talking to all three, and there were always new revelations and good quotes to be had. What they told me was almost always confirmed by the results of major opinion polls. Their thoughts often provided a shortcut to understanding the main issues behind a story; what’s on people’s minds and how they feel about what’s going on.

It is with this interesting and useful method that I approach many issues before commenting or writing about a topic. It has become second nature to me even when I am travelling for leisure. I will start a conversation with a taxi driver as I leave the airport towards my destination. Thoughts would be racing in my mind as I try to catch a glimpse of the soul of the city and perhaps the country. Taxi drivers are almost always ready to engage in any topic, whether it’s complex politics or just the weather. And as I hop from one taxi into another during my sojourn, I begin to draw a picture of what the pressing issues are and what is really on the minds of everyday people.

Waiters provide a different sample of public opinion. Most are young and educated, working during summers and between semesters. Many are immigrants, especially in Europe, and most are inquisitive and willing to chat. They have interesting stories to tell; how they got here and how different things are in their native lands. They underline the economic and social realities that their countries are facing. But their input on their host countries is interesting as well.

Barbers are in a different category altogether. It takes time, and many visits, to establish trust and lure them into conversation. They’re the ultimate source of information for me as their clients come from all walks of life. They’re good listeners as well, which allows them to tell anecdotes and provide some intriguing facts. And yes, they’ll gladly pass of the latest bit of gossip. Journalists love gossips because on occasion one would turn out to be true and provide a great lead for a major story.

Here in Jordan, these three reliable sources of information and tidbits are almost in agreement on what the country is feeling right now, namely economic pain and political apathy. YoungJordanians are frustrated, which is always a dangerous thing. Taxi drivers lambast government policies that seem to be directed at low-income citizens and those with limited financial resources. They feel the pressure as they struggle to put food on the table and meet their expenses.

My barber of 20 years confirmed my suspicions that most Jordanians are exhibiting symptoms of political indifference. The general elections are imminent, but the talk at the barber shop is of struggling businesses. Even those who belong to the so-called elite such as businessmen and intellectuals seem disinterested.

Surely this dispiriting collective shoulder shrugging has been picked in the corridors of government? It should be sounding alarm bells. How did we get here? Official statements extolling democracy and transparency, coupled withreassurances that better days are just around the corner are all treated with suspicion. For my barber, it’s every man for himself. What does that say about our society?

It’s not what members of the elite think and say that concerns me. It’s where the common man and woman stand on the important issues of the day that’s making me apprehensive. They need to believe that tomorrow will be a better day. But for now, waiters, taxi drivers and barbers remain unconvinced.