Little attention has been paid to what happens communicatively when members of the general population attempt to complete a postal survey. The questions – here, on the experience of pain – encapsulate health researchers’ views of useful indicators of the scope of pain experience, hence displaying an ‘official’ representation of experienced pain, limitation, and disability. The respondent faces the double task of aligning their personal experience with this representation in a way that is meaningful and true both to their own experience and to the perceived demands of the questionnaire. For this to succeed, context is often crucial. The paper explores sources and indications of tension in this endeavour as part of a communicative process. Beginning from the observation that respondents frequently write unsolicited comments on their questionnaires, the paper proposes that the need for communication beyond the requested tick in the box treats the questionnaire as an attempt at dialogue with a figure I call ‘the imagined researcher’. The paper discusses the communicative task that confronts respondents and the implications of ‘the imagined researcher’ for the research process.