Probably I signed something tonight before I participated in a two-hour focus group or collected the $100 gift card for my time that swore I wouldn’t divulge the nature of the product being studied. I can’t remember. Mostly, I think what I signed meant if they gave me something that made me break out in hives (or die) I wouldn’t sue them. It’s only the second time I’ve done one of these things. The last time was more fun because it was about trailers for a cable-style TV show and they were clearly trying to figure out how middle aged women felt about guns, rock music, and women in pasties and G-strings. Tonight’s study, alas, was nothing so exciting. Instead, it was all about various non-dairy milk products and what would make us buy one, and then, as the coup de grâce, a taste test so we could say definitively which one we liked most.
I’m an almond milk user and they didn’t foist any cow’s milk on us this evening, but as I write this—after having had a Coke and a delicious pasta dinner prepared by Z—I am here to report that sample A3 has left an aftertaste in my mouth that I just can’t get rid of. I wish I knew what it was so I’d be sure to never, ever buy it when I see it on sale at Bartell. It was like no substance made in nature, though I have little doubt that whatever packaging it’s in suggests that it was made in the forest by woodland creatures (wearing gloves and aprons) of all natural ingredients.
Uh. Horrible stuff.
When I’m thrown into a group like this, I’m always kind of fascinated by the dynamic and shifts in perception as the study progresses. In a non-classroom setting, I invariably initially like no one. I don’t have good reasons for it. I make lots of assumptions about who the individuals are, how they spend their time, and what they might be thinking about me. (For reasons I can’t explain, a lot of my judgment of them and my perception of their judgment of me has to do with nail polish color and handbags.) I didn’t make it beyond Psych 101 in college, but I’m smart enough to know that this is just a defense mechanism. Like too many things in my life, I’m always horrified by how quickly I am reduced to my junior high self, and small group work with people I don’t know is the surest way to get me to 1981. No. I wasn’t going to be impressed with this sampling of humans at all.
But then we went into the room with the two-way mirrors and introduced ourselves and suddenly I couldn’t remember what it was I had against the woman with the odd sternum piercing or why I thought the young girl with the trendy glasses would be snobby. Instead, she had a sweet voice and was apologetic when she liked one of the samples none of the rest of us liked, and Sternum Piercing made all of us laugh with her jokes about how she’d put anything in her coffee if she had a coupon for it. As everyone spoke about what they did or why they drank almond or soy milk instead of cow’s milk, the ice started to thaw a little amongst us. Mid-study, the facilitator brought out some sample packaging and we all gave our opinions and then she unveiled one brand that most of us had never seen. It was in a plastic bottle that looked like an old-timey milk bottle from an old-timey dairy from some place where cows roamed free and happily gave of their bounty without us having to feel guilty about the quality of their lives. We were all cooing and calling as if she had just uncovered a basket of Labrador puppies instead of almond milk. I have no idea if that particular almond milk was one of the ones we had tonight, but it was clear that ladies feel strongly about retro packaging, and from that point on, the energy in the room changed. We might not all like the same brands of almond and soy milk, but by golly, we know how we want our milk packaged. If she’d told us this brand would be dropped off at our doors by a man in a white uniform, we probably all would have lost our minds.
Finally, seven paper cups of milk were brought in for each of us, and the taste test began. We were instructed not to talk to each other during this part, but then the facilitator briefly left the room (by design, I suspect) and we were like a bunch of bad school kids. We were making audible “ick” noises and showing each other horrible faces and then laughing. Several people gagged dramatically. The woman across from me kept saying, “Uh uh. No way.” One of the ladies who had earlier impressed us with the story of the nearly 30 pounds she has lost since the beginning of the year admitted that the real reason the pounds have come off is because the nurse at the diet clinic where she is going is “fine” and she feels so embarrassed about him measuring her body that she’s been committed daily to making herself smaller and smaller by eating less and less.
When the facilitator came back in and asked what she’d missed, we all looked at each other conspiratorially, and kept mum. As soon as our last vote was cast, we were ushered into the lobby, handed our $100 Visa cards, and pointed towards the elevator. As we filed down the hall I felt genuine warmth for all of these women who had so bravely tasted A3!
The minute the elevator hit the ground floor, however, the spell was broken. We didn’t know each other. Wouldn’t ever know each other. A woman who had been telling me earlier about a previous study she did and her barriatric surgery and how she doesn’t really drink anything but coffee and wine and is unapologetic about it, looked away from me when I smiled at her and prepared to tell her goodbye like we were perfect strangers. Because we were. We were done focusing, and so we headed back out into the city with our city goggles on that blur the edges of every crowd until individuals are no longer recognizable and are therefore easier to navigate.