International Pollsters share surprise over people actually answering their calls and wanting to...

Pollsters share surprise over people actually answering their calls and wanting to talk

Ms Ayala Mitchell of the Siena College Research Institute, shared of one of her conversations, “People are dealing with anxiety, and they haven’t seen their family and friends. They just want to talk to someone”




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In a time when people are sheltering in place and self-isolating, a phone call – even from a complete stranger – can feel like a link to the world outside.

The Covid-19 pandemic has irreversibly changed the entire world, and now pollsters want to know how the citizens of New York, the worst stricken state for the virus in the United States, are dealing with the crisis. In what was supposed to be a simple and quick telephone survey with just a few questions slowly turned into much longer conversations about people’s sadness, loneliness and fears about the future.

In an article by The New York Times, Ms Ayala Mitchell of the Siena College Research Institute, shared of one of her conversations, “People are dealing with anxiety, and they haven’t seen their family and friends. They just want to talk to someone.”

Ms Mitchell explained how one particular talk with an older lady struck her when the lady explained that heading outdoors for a while and seeing a single flower bloom was the highlight of her day. Ms Mitchell went on to say, “You have to be very careful because you don’t want to come across as biased, but I said, ‘I understand how you’re feeling. We all have to get through this.’”

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With the world finding itself shifting into a new reality, with jobs being lost, families being displaced, and with no chance for social interaction at the moment, pollsters are suddenly finding that people are more willing to pick up their phones and actually talk to them, unlike before. In the article, it goes on to explain that not only are people amenable to being questioned, oftentimes, they even treat these pollsters as ‘therapists,’ since they have no one else to talk to.

Not only has this increased the productivity of these ongoing polls by a surprising 25 per cent at that, but it has opened up the channels for getting these citizens to give their honest opinions during the time of a crisis with the upcoming US presidential elections just months away. And the rise of participation by the public isn’t just through telephone interviews, but online surveys have also seen a rise in the past few weeks as well.

The New York Times’ article also states how Pew Research Center, a company that does most of its polling online via American Trends Panel, had interviewees writing their thanks in the voluntary-comments box at the end of their surveys. Pew’s Director of survey research, Courtney Kennedy said, “There were a lot of people volunteering that they appreciated being asked about this content, that they felt it was timely, they felt it was relevant, and really appreciated the opportunity to talk about this. We don’t usually get that kind of feedback.”

And according to Don Levy, the director of the polling at Siena, he explains in the article that the polling process has shifted since people are now looking at this as a way of having some human interaction, but it causes a few problems for them too. This is because in order for a survey to be considered ‘reliable,’ a script of questions must be followed to get viable responses, but due to what’s happening, these interviews have become a space for people to share their emotions and just have someone to talk to. Mr Levy even shared that the recent poll was meant to only take 10 minutes but instead it “averaged about 14 minutes – which is a big difference.”

Another pollster, LaShawn Nelson, who has been making calls from her Houston home, explained just how hard it was to “stick to the script.” Many of those being interviewed shared their worries and anxieties with her, with some openly weeping during the call. According to Nelson, “When they say what they’re going through and we just move on the next question, it seems like we’re not even human, like we don’t care. But we do care.” She added, “I tell them, ‘Just be patient – I know everything seems like it’s not going to end, but hold on, things will turn around and the economy will pick up again.”

Aside from people picking up their phones, they have also found that those from younger generations are also answering cellphone calls from unknown numbers, aka telemarketers and pollsters. There was even a rise in answering calls going on in the day time, probably due to the fact that people are either working from home or not working at all. It explained in The New York Times article that Executive Vice President Eran Ben-Portah of SSRS, which is another research firm, shared, “The gaps you’re used to seeing in terms of age or education didn’t exist as much.”

Due to the pandemic, most companies have also moved their people who were working in offices to working at home. Siena’s director of polling, Mr Levy, also contracted the virus and ended up in a 4-day stint in the hospital. Because of that, he moved his entire staff to stay-at-home operations, explaining, “I haven’t been face-to-face with any of the people I work with for more than a month.”

The article also found that these new outcomes of polling are incredibly similar to what happened during 9/11 almost 20 years ago. Lee Miringoff, who was in charge of the Marist College poll at the time, was worried about the responses of those they were interviewing during that tragedy. He explained, “We wanted not to be annoying anybody or upsetting. We found exactly what people are finding out right now: that the response rates were off the charts, people had a lot of say, and they wanted to share.” He also said rather than be offended, “people were very, very happy to connect” during a time of tragedy.

Probably the most heart-wrenching of all the stories was one shared by the Siena interviewer, Ms Mitchell, which happened to be the one about a 92-year old widow who not only lived alone but had no family to even help her out or call her at all. Mitchell shared, “It was so sad and I thought, ‘Oh God, I wish I could call her.’” She also added, “When you’re talking to these people every day and you hear their stories, you can’t help but get emotional.”

Ms Mitchell, who holds two jobs and has two sons of her own in college, is not immune to pressure either during this pandemic. But in the end, she also shared, “At the end of the day, I’m grateful that I have a job.” / TISG

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