Early Interviewing Guide

In 1942 Bob Ball was an analyst in the Training Office. He was tasked with preparing an instruction guide for field office interviews. This is the first document Ball wrote for general circulation in SSA. It expresses both the official view of the Agency, and Ball's own philosophy of service.


Field personnel are the Social Security Board's direct representatives to the public. Your success or failure in dealing with the public will in large measure determine the success or failure of the whole social security program. You will see more people in an official capacity than the Director of the Bureau or any other Centrel Office employee and each person you see will have either a better or worse opinion of the social security program and, yes, of our whole government, because of the way you treated him. Yours then is a great responsibility and a great opportunity.

It is expected that your technical knowledge will always be thorough and up to date and that you will know the rules and regulations connected with Old-Age and Survivors Insurance which will aid you in doing a better job for the people who look to you for help. You must know not only Title II but enough about the broad social security program to be of assistance to those you meet who are not eligible for insurance or who need additional assistance. You are the representative of the Board as well as the Bureau. In addition, to do intelligent public relations work you must know the weaknesses as well as the strong points of the present Act-and you must be acquainted with the proposals for changes in the Act and extensions of the program. You must know the why as well as the what.

All these things you are expected to know but even more important there are things you are expected to be. The mysteries of the average monthly wage and insured status are relatively easy to master but such knowledge is only the beginning of your job. Your job is really different just because it doesn't deal with facts or things or even theories but with people in all their variety. You have much more difficult things to learn. You have to learn how to be a certain type of person.

Perhaps the one word which comes closer than any other to expressing what field personnel must be in order to be successful in dealing with the public is COURTEOUS. "Oh but that's easy" you say, "I have good manners. They are really second nature to me. I would never be discourteous in business or in my private life either." Unfortunately, however, courtesy is not the same thing as good manners. If it were we could learn courtesy as we learn the average monthly wage and that would be that. Courtesy has been defined as the ability to make people feel at home. This ability is much more than mere politeness or the correct manners. Real courtesy means knowing each person you deal with so well that you know what makes him feel at home. It means for instance that you are crisp and businesslike in dealing with a busy executive and that you don't take up his time unduly with casual conversation and attempts to be friendly. On the other hand, it means knowing that it is discourteous to be crisp and businesslike to those who enter our offices, shy and afraid.

Did you ever stop to think how discourteous it is to use a word that is above the vocabulary of the person with whom you are talking? Technical terms should not be used in interviewing the public not only because people do not understand them but also because they resent not understanding them. In putting them at a disadvantage you are being discourteous.

The first step toward developing the knowledge of people that is necessary in order to be courteous in this fundamental sense is to be critical of your own contacts with people. You must learn first to weigh the effect of your words and manner on others and in time you will be able to foresee the effect you will have. At that point you will become really valuable to the Bureau. To begin, then, go over your interviews in your mind after they are completed and ask yourself -- Did that elderly gentleman really understand what I was saying or was he afraid to ask me again? Will that schoolgirl remember what I told her in the event she goes to work this summer? Was that widow, who was so obviously upset, in any fame of mind to know what I was talking about? To be a successful interviewer you must learn not only enough about poople to make them feel at home, but you must learn also to express yourself so that all types of people understand you. Most important of all you must learn to be the type of person that a stranger feels he can trust,

This is a country of immigrants from many lands. Because of the variety of our origin the task of understanding people who come to our offices is made even more difficult. The most important principle in learning about people is to remember that each individual is just a little bit different from any other and that some are a whole lot different. You must approach each now individual with a mind free of preconceived notions. Nothing is so destructive to a good interview as ready-made concepts about people, or classes of people, or races of people. The worst interviewers are those experts who can tell all about somebody from the way he talks or dresses or whatnot. A little modesty rather than cocksureness will help us to learn more about that most difficult of all subjects, another human being.

Interviewing, of course, is not a matter of either technical knowledge or courtesy or knowledge of people. We must learn to evaluate the answers we get–distinguishing between an opinion and a fact. A good interviewer draws people gets them talking. He is seldom satisfied with one-word answers and he has learned to recognize evasions.

Of course, we all feel that this social program which we are called upon to administer is an important one. We hope it has become a permanent part of our American way of life. This is not necessarily true. This social security program will only stay with us just as long as we do the kind of a job that our visitors like and appreciate.

Success in this task requires the help of those who understand elderly people and widows and children. We must satisfy those with whom we work and for whom we work and in addition we must know that we are satisfying them. Their reactions to us and our program must be correctly interpreted. In your capacity of dealing directly with our visitors you become the interpreter, and it is through your eyes, trained to appraise correctly, that we must look for the correct reactions to our visitors. And so we must learn not only to do the kind of job that our program calls for, but we must learn to know people sufficiently well so that we can help in developing a program that more thoroughly meets the needs of our beneficiaries.

Developed for the Field Personnel
Social Security Board of the Bureau of Old-Age & Survivors Insurance.