Planet Duke: Around the World in 36 Questions

October 12, 2015

Katie Fernelius spent the summer systematically falling in love.

As a student of the Center for Documentary Studies and a global cultural studies major in the literature program, Fernelius designed an extensive final project that could combine storytelling and the delicious discomfort of unfamiliar cities and languages. “How do we connect across difference? How do we know ourselves, and how do we know others? What does it mean to be a global citizen?” her project asks. “Essentially, I pitched this as an experimental documentary that explores these questions.”

The senior was inspired in part by the “36 questions” craze that swept a dating-averse campus early this year. The questions are from a study by psychologist Arthur Aron but were recently popularized in a playful, poignant Modern Love essay in The New York Times. The study contends that scripted, increasingly personal conversation cues—paired with eye contact—can create a sense of vulnerability between any two strangers, simulating falling in love. “To me, it really spoke to a sort of emotional intimacy that we don’t get so much practice in at Duke,” Fernelius wrote in an e-mail message.

Her research took her to seven cities: Lima, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, Berlin, Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Istanbul, and Hong Kong. Using the thirty-six questions, she interviewed some thirty strangers, digging into their family histories and political proclivities within minutes of meeting them.

“I think some of my best conversations have been very unexpected: running into a political satirist and activist at a concert in Rio de Janeiro, engaging an impassioned Wikileaks advocate at a bar in Berlin, or meeting a Turkish U2 enthusiast at an Irish pub in Istanbul.”

But finding love isn’t easy, Fernelius admits, and just creating a connection poses a series of hurdles. “Language barriers are really difficult to overcome and often exclude a lot of people from the conversation I am initiating. People have different thresholds for emotional intimacy than we do in the States, making my sense of a relationship and someone else’s sense of it very different.”

In spite of this, Fernelius found her interviewees consistently open to sharing their experiences. They wanted to talk about love and community, how they function in their lives, and what makes them difficult or thrilling. Across cultures, she found, people primarily spoke in abstract, intangible terms. “I asked one person what love looked like, and he laughed and answered, ‘It’s blue, green, red; a circle, square, triangle. Love doesn’t look like anything.’ ” No matter the native tongue, no set of vocabulary seemed fully capable of capturing love in concrete language.

To string together these narratives, she’s experimenting with different nonfiction storytelling techniques, hoping to find the right fit in the form of an audio essay.

She will reveal whether she has successfully fallen in love when she releases a podcast for her graduation with distinction project.