I offered to help a class of high school journalism students learn anything they wanted to know about the field. The requests they made were fairly standard, so much so, that I already had lectures built on them: How to be a good leader. How to edit and coach writers. How to write tighter sentences.
The one request I had trouble with, however, came from the teacher of the class:
“Can you teach my students how to be nosy?”
Her plea came from a place of journalistic angst. To find stories, students needed to be more aware of their surroundings. They needed to become curious about what was going on, how things worked and why things were the way the were. Instead, her students had fallen into the rut of many young journalists, covering standard events, profiling the people they knew and generally telling the same stories over and over again.
If I could teach them to be nosy, she seemed to be saying, I could help them find better stories, poke their noses into deeper issues and generally serve as more dutiful watchdogs at the school.
My problem is that I always told students that I could teach them almost anything, but I couldn’t teach them to “wanna” when it came to doing the work and I couldn’t teach them to be nosy. Those intrinsic elements were theirs alone to control, I explained.
During the drive home from that class, I started really wondering if I was right or wrong about the nosy factor.
I know that, for better or worse, I have the nosiness trait in spades. It’s why I often get distracted during meetings with my various bosses and attempt to read the stuff on their desk. (Reading things upside down was a skill I garnered many years ago and one that has served me well.) It’s why I pick up broken lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners and other appliances I see on the side of the road and take them home to fix them. I have no need for the item, but I really want to know what broke and if it can be fixed.
It’s also why my first response to a lot of things is, “OK, fine. If you don’t want to tell me, I’ll just FOIA it.” I also find myself sucked into clickbait stories that tell me I’ll “never believe” what happened to Former Child Star X. (Spoiler alert: I could believe it.) Even with all of these ups and downs, I realized that “nosy” made me a really engaged reporter who saw stories in almost anything and it left me flabbergasted when other people didn’t.
I vividly remember a young woman in one of my writing classes as Missouri bitterly complaining about not knowing ANYONE who was interesting enough to be a personality profile subject. She ended up profiling a friend who went down to Florida with her for spring break. The profile was horrible, so I asked who else they met down there to see if I could show her some better ways to look at the assignment.
It turned out, they stayed with the friend’s boyfriend and his roommate, who was a “pubic stylist,” a term I wish I could forget.
This guy would do all sorts of “coifing” for people in that area. One such person was a woman who had just received a frog tattoo south of her hip and had asked for her pubic hair to be dyed green and shaped into a lily pad.
And this wasn’t even the weirdest styling this guy had done during that week of spring break.
“How the hell did you not see a story in that guy?” I asked with a level of incredulity I had never before reached.
She shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t really think about it…”
I often tell students that we are all born with some level of wonder, which is why a 4-year-old’s favorite question is “Why?” Somewhere along the line, that sense of wonder gets lost or beaten out of us to the point that we stop asking “Why?” every six seconds. However, the curiosity within that inner child is only part of what makes for a nosy person (and thus a pretty tough reporter). If I had to define it, I would say “nosy” is made up of a mix of insatiable curiosity, a lack of patience, a thirst for knowledge and a healthy dash of weaseldom.
I asked the hivemind what they thought about the ability to teach “nosy” to journalism students and the degree to which I was right about it. Consider some of the answers:
If I look at this through behavior analytic lenses (because c’mon I can’t turn it off) I see being nosy as either automatically reinforcing to someone or not. It could be a conditioned behavior but I feel like you are either motivated/reinforced by being nosy or you aren’t.
I am not a journalism teacher, so take this with a grain of salt. I worked as a high school counselor for 16 years, as a user support rep for a data processing center in the 80s, and as a banker. I think there are some people who are just naturally curious, and want to know and understand things, and some people who just want to know enough to get them through whatever it is.
I chose not to go into reporting one day after a couple deaths at a fraternity on campus. You wanted me to simply walk over there and knock on the door and be a reporter and I couldn’t do it. I cried in your office. Someone went in my place, but I knew at that moment that being “nosy” was not in my DNA. I’ll challenge power structures and I’ll interview musicians, but I refuse to intrude on people’s personal lives. I admire those who can. It’s an important skill to have, and it’s the reason journalists are important. It can probably be taught, I’m sure my refusal was partly lack of experience, but I also believe some people are just born reporters.
Funny thing is that now that I’m a crisis worker I talk to people all night about their personal problems and ask totally invasive questions to get them to open up and calm down. So, maybe I had the skill but was using it in the wrong setting.
Some of us are curious by nature, others are not. The curious ones make the best journalists.
That said, perhaps the best perspective came from our departmental program assistant, a self-confessed fellow nosy individual. Her point was that inherent in all of us is curiosity, but the degree to which we use that for specific interests is what distinguishes us. Some people want to know things because they just want to know. Others see knowledge as an opportunity to gossip or pass along information. Still others want to know something but don’t care enough to ask about it. Curiosity is there, but perhaps the other elements don’t exist, or maybe they don’t exist in the optimum blend to create nosiness, especially the kind necessary for journalism.
With all of that in mind, here are a few observations that might help folks wondering about the nosy factor:
- It’s all about cultivation: The discussion with our PA had me realize that nosiness is a lot like horticulture. You can buy a fully grown apple tree and transplant it into your yard to get apples. You can buy a sapling and nurture it along until it becomes a fruit-bearing tree. You can also buy a seed and grow the tree from scratch. The amount of cultivation it takes to bring that tree along starts with how developed that plant is when you get it. At the very least, however, you need a seed. You can’t grow an apple tree with an empty bucket, a handful of dirt and some wishful thinking.
- Rebuild curiosity: Nosy requires curiosity, which many of us lose along the way. If you spend any amount of time with a 4-year-old, you understand that “Why?” seems to be the only word they know. At some point, frustrated adults push them away or it ceases to be “cool” to ask why something is the way it is. People don’t want to look dumb, so they fake it. They don’t want to look ignorant, so they ignore it. That seed is likely there, so if we can bring it back to life a bit, we can help them reengage their sense of wonder. The other elements of the recipe for nosy can get added later, but this one should be present and easy enough to tap.
- Show them the benefits of nosy: As educators, we can reinvigorate that curiosity if we can help the students see why “Why?” still matters. This isn’t so much about pushing them to see things the way we do (assuming we’re nosy), but rather helping them to see how nosy can benefit them. One of the biggest things I think students miss in terms of being nosy is seeing how the things they could be nosy about impact them or others who matter to them. In short, they don’t capture the “this matters because” element in a personal way.
If you told me that cutting out Diet Coke had all sorts of positive social and environmental benefits, I’d politely listen before buying another case. However, if you told me, “Here’s science that says no one who ever drank as much of this crap as you do has died by the age of 50,” I’d pay serious attention. Just like everything else in journalism, audience centricity matters in the realm of nosiness.
- Nosy isn’t everything: As much as nosy could very well be a “nature” element, we can at the very least provide them with enough of the tools to make something good out of whatever they can nurture along. I think of it like what happened to my wife, Amy, when she was a little girl and wanted to learn how to ice skate. The instructor took one look at her and said, “You don’t know how to glide. I can’t teach you that. You’ll never be great at this.” Well, aside from being a dink who crushed the soul of an 8-year-old, this idiot essentially made my wife turn away from ice skating entirely. Could she have been the next Peggy Fleming or Dorothy Hamill? No, but that’s not the point.
The point is that if he had nurtured what was there, she could have developed some acumen in this area and found an enjoyable pastime. The same is true here. Find things that can help the students become more functional journalists, work to pique curiosity and see what you can do to help them find areas of engagement that could lead to a good career. Even if they’re not nosy, they’ll do pretty well for themselves.