Subject: Female, late 20s, White
Me: "I'm just curious, if someone were to describe themselves as a Rationalist to you, what stereotypes would come to your mind about that person?
Woman: "I can't answer that."
30 seconds of awkward silence.
Subject: Woman, Approx 30s, White
(Standard intro: "what stereotypes come to mind")
Woman: "Yeah. Why?"
Me: "We're doing some market research and trying to see what gut reactions we'd get if we used a particular name. Like some people hear the world Rationalist and they think 'cold and emotionless'"
Woman, "No, I don't think that at all. Just able to look realistically at things."
(As a rule of thumb I'm not sure I should explain myself in as much detail, especially not leaving people with the specific phrase "cold and emotionless" in case they weren't already thinking it. But in this case it worked out)
Man: "Someone who likes to break things down to a [ground?] level" (can't recall his exact phrasing).
Me: "And is that a good or bad thing?"
Man: Could be either. Some people break things down just to be an asshole. Other people actually are trying to get something done."
Man: "And sometimes you don't want someone to break things down, sometimes you want someone who doesn't lose track [of the big picture?]" (can't remember exact phrasing)
Me: Well Rationality doesn't necessarily mean you lose track of the big picture....
(door opens, guy gets off, I feel like I messed up a bit there.)
I felt like I had a lot of data, and that I had overall gotten a fairly positive response. I wasn't sure Rationality was the most effective word for outreach, but I thought that the benefits of "reclaiming" the word as something with positive connotations outweighed the lukewarm responses I sometimes got.
Then I looked back and realized I'd only actually talked to 9 people. Which is not a lot. I stopped doing it for a while but I'll try and get some more data. I invite others to either help with this particular question, or to start forming other questions and getting some feedback on them. I did my questioning in one specific building, which I think had a decent cross section of people, but was still heavily tilted towards upper-middle-class, middle-aged white people, working in central Manhattan. We'll want more variety than that.
I'm sure many of you spend time standing in lines, waiting in elevators or otherwise hanging around other people in awkward silence. This is an opportunity to take that time and convert it into useful information. Most of those people will never see you again, so there's little risk of losing status.
If you are someone who shies away from social encounters, this would probably be a good experience for you. It requires a bit of courage, but it's a fear you can overcome, and helps develop the skill of initiating conversations with strangers. (It does NOT necessarily teach you good conversation techniques, since you're asking specific questions that do not make good "traditional" smalltalk, but if you have trouble initiating in the first place, it's probably more important to work on that than to worry about specific ways of conversing).
So far I've deliberately avoided asking people when there was more than one person there. Partly this was because I was still a little scared and the bigger groups were even more intimidating. Partly because I was concerned about the group influencing the individual responses. (This is easy to avoid if you're in an elevator, less easy if you're waiting in a line. Not sure what I recommend there).
Some things this was lacking:
1) A control group. "Positive" responses may have just been polite, regardless of the subject matter. At this point I don't think the effort and consequences of a control group are really worth it, but we should at least acknowledge the issue.
2) More consistent followup statements/questions, so that all the data is based on similar input.
3) Later on, a variety of DIFFERENT statements/questions, so we can see how much has to do with rationality and how much has to do with our phrasing. Also, just come up with new questions in general.
4) It's been suggested that I record people's responses with a hidden camera, then ask permission to use it after the fact. I'm not sure how I feel about that. It'd definitely be useful to have the real responses rather than my recollections of them, but this requires a bit more courage than I feel like I have. Hidden microphone might be more workable (I recently discovered that iPhones have pretty awesome voice memo capabilities. Which makes sense, given that audio-input is their original function). This has the added benefit of giving you feedback on your communication skills as well.
5) I mentioned before: it'd be great if someone could set up a website designed to sort this data, and it'd be even better if it was designed to handle a variety of related topics as well. Obviously the free form responses don't lend themselves well to sorting, but I think we can at least sort by:
a) demographics of the subject
b) subjective impression of how "positive" the subject was towards rationality
c) somehow cluster responses by keywords
If the conversation has time to go anywhere, it'll be important to have an actual, good, positive definition of rationality to give to people. (Using a particular phrase can tie in with point 2 above, so we have an easier time comparing conversations). The new intro on the front page of Less Wrong is pretty good but a little too long. My recommended definition for a short, casual conversation:
"Rationality is the study of making good decisions. We're trying to improve our understanding of how the world works and what we can do to achieve our goals."
If so I can actually get a repository for the data up pretty soon, but it leaves me with a new question: Outside of a America, what's the typical breakdowns for racial background? (i.e. in America you generally say "African American" which is just silly in a potentially international audience, or "Black" which is accurate but has come to sound a bit unprofessional)