5 Tips for Interviewing Reluctant Relatives

By Sunny McClellan Morton Premium

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Anyone who conducts family history interviews eventually comes across a reluctant interviewee. You probably know the ones in your family — a modest great-aunt, a grumpy uncle. But even the most tight-lipped folks are usually willing to discuss things that matter to them. You just have to figure out the right questions to ask, and how to ask them. Try these five strategies to get a good story out of the strong, silent types in your family.

1. Do a background check.

We’re not talking criminal background check here. Learn about the world in which your subjects grew up, advises Delta Stacey, a consultant at the Kirtland, Ohio, Family History Center (a branch of the Salt Lake City Family History Library) and veteran family history interviewer. “Know where they were raised. Find out a little about the area. Learn some of the history that happened during their lifetimes.”

Your first step is to conduct a brief preliminary interview. Get the years and locations of major life events: education, military service, religious milestones such as baptism or bar mitzvah, marriages, divorces, births and deaths of close relatives, and career transitions, including retirement. These will give you a working outline — and whet your subject’s memory for future conversations.

Next, do a little research. What can you learn about her hometowns? Schools? Wars, political scandals, religious or social movements that may have affected them? Identify major world events that might’ve triggered “flashbulb memories”- that is, public events that leave an indelible impression in your mind, such as the death of John F. Kennedy, the Hindenburg explosion or the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Even those who think their own pasts aren’t worth discussing may enjoy commenting on important historic events they witnessed.

Fortunately, you don’t have to become a historian just for the interview. A quick Internet search can bring up community Web sites full of local history (try entering the interviewee’s town, region/state and the word history). Old issues of magazines such as Life contain a wealth of information about daily living-from headline news to household detergents. Or consult Panati’s Parade of Fads, Follies and Manias: The Origins of Our Most Cherished Obsessions by Charles Panati (Harper Collins) which summarizes popular singers, foods and fashions of different decades.

Finally, prepare both general and follow-up questions. For instance, if you start with, “Tell me about growing up in a mining town,” you might continue with, “Did your family own a home or rent a company house?”

Stacey advises leafing through old magazines with your interviewee. It’s an excellent way to prompt reflections on topics from celebrities to child-rearing. Just be sure to keep copies for reference. “It’s no fun to listen to your subject stape-recorded comments about a picture you don’t have,” she says.

2. Get up close and personal.

The opposite approach-zeroing in on a small personal detail-can elicit vivid memories as well. This is what I had to do with my husband. General questions bored him and didn’t trigger specific memories. But a very pointed inquiry about his kindergarten teacher got him talking.

“The more concrete and specific I am, the more information I’ve found I can glean,” says Nancy Gould, a counselor and family historian who specializes in personal history interviews. “Rather than ‘Tell me a story about my mom and my dad,’ I might say, ‘Tell me how you introduced my mother and father.”’

How do you know what questions to ask? Latch onto stories you remember from other family members, or memories from your own childhood. “I knew vaguely that my grandfather was a gardener,” Gould says. “I knew he had pretty nice tomatoes and corn for us when we were kids.” So she asked him about it. “I learned that there are certain varieties of tomatoes that he actually named. He used to go down to the experiment station every day. I never would have known that if I had not asked the question.”

You can quiz your kin on the details of just about any offbeat topic: food, sports, games, chores, vacations, parents’ jobs, eccentric relatives, books, movies, radio shows, cars, clothing — the list goes on.

Stacey cautions that the success of this technique depends on the interviewee. “Some people will pick up on those details well, and others might not,” she says. “Especially when you start working with people who are elderly. If you ask a very specific question, you might get a blank stare and the reply, ‘I have no memory of that.’” In those cases, you’ll want to use a different tactic.

3. Pry into their passions.

When Gould asked her grandfather about his gardening, she unwittingly hit on just the right topic to get him talking. An interviewer’s sincere intrest in subject’s favorite topic builds trust, camaraderie — and opportunities for storytelling.

My husband’s grandfather taught me this principle. He’s a hard-working, handsome man of few words. But his love for his family and heritage shows in the annual family reunions he organizes. I brought my laptop computer to the reunion one year and set the computer screen font large enough for him to read over my shoulder. Then I began asking questions about the history of the reunion. Grandpa Frank began telling stories. His brother chimed in. Soon a full-scale storytelling session was underway, with other relatives gathered around, listening and laughing as I typed away.

Stacey agrees this technique can pay off — especially with subjects who may feel their “boring” lives aren’t worth talking about. “When I asked my uncle about dairy farming, he started using technical terms I just didn’t know. I had known that passion was there, but I hadn’t realized that this was what truly made him who he was. I had to excuse myself and go read up on dairy farms and horses.”

And then? “It was a gorgeous interview. I could ask him intelligent questions about the things that were his passion, and he respected that. He was so excited that a member of his family cared enough to learn those things from him.”

So whatever your interviewee’s passion, go into the conversation as prepared as you can. “It all goes back to the rule that it takes as much time-or more-to get ready for an interview as it does to actually give it,” explains Stacey. “If you don’t know the [right] vocabulary, you don’t get as much information.”

4. Appeal to the senses.

At times it can be difficult to get a subject’s memories flowing. So an interviewer’s bag of tricks should include activities that appeal to the senses. As Gould puts it, “the more you can get into the senses, the more vivid the memory.”

Scents, images, sounds, textures and tastes can bring the past to life-and bring a shy or private person out of her shell. For example, you could try to engage your subject by fixing a family recipe, listening to classic Motown records together or fingering through a trunk of faded clothing.

Old family albums are a terrific visual stimulus: Even elderly, memory-impaired adults often respond to childhood photos. The most mundane or fuzzy photos might trigger sharp, colorful reminiscences.

And there’s nothing like the sights, sounds, and smells of the “old neighborhood” to open memory’s floodgates. I once drove my husband through his hometown streets. Sudden, detailed recollections came to mind: attending parochial schools; hopping slow-moving freight trains with his brothers; playing street games; and barbecuing with his grandparents.

Gould has gotten great results with songs. “Ask somebody what her favorite song was in high school,” she suggests. “Or what ‘their song’ was with a boyfriend or female friends.”

She recalls an interview with her Aunt Ruth (“Rouie”). “She and my mother babysat together. I asked her how she would get the children to go to sleep. She said they would rock them in a quilt and sing them a song. And I said, ‘Sing the song for me.’

“She sang: ‘When at night I go to sleep, 14 angels watch do keep.’” Gould pauses, intent on her own memories. “Rouie has Alzheimer’s now. Her mind isn’t necessarily connected to the present. Last time I visited her, I sang that song, and you could see her relax in her chair and her eyes look off into the distance. It’s like the music could touch her in ways words could not.”

If you don’t know much about your subjects, try to visit them at home. Look for personal items, trinkets, unusual wall displays and odd or whimsical pieces. “There’s a reason they’re called conversation pieces!” Gould exclaims. “Look around. You might say, ‘Tell me a story about that teddy bear.’ Whatever clue you can think of could develop into a phenomenal story.” She suggests opening an old jewelry box, or even stroking a piece of ribbon — “I’ve had that trigger a thought.”

5. Let your subject lead.

A good interviewer doesn’t have to know all the questions to ask in advance. In fact, the interviewer’s most important-and perhaps difficult-job is to listen and take cues from the subject. This means “not getting so involved in asking questions that you forget to give the person room to remember and to report,” says Gould.

Stacey agrees. She used to think her primary goal was to get through her list of questions. “When someone was pausing, I would jump in with another question,” she recalls. “Now I’ve learned to just let them think, because that’s when the really good memories come out. Sometimes even the best part of the story.”

Having compassion for your subjects’ emotions is key: After all, painful memories are what make some people reluctant to talk. You might be tempted to bypass sensitive subjects, but Gould suggests allowing your subject to make that decision. “You might say, ‘You look as if you’re having lots of feelings about this. I’m happy to listen if you want to talk about it, but we can stop. ‘Be respectful. Give them the option to pass.” But allow them to remember and feel, as well.

Learning not to contradict another’s memory is important, too. “If you’re interviewing somebody in your own family, don’t try to tell them how it really happened,” says Gould. “I have four siblings, and if each of us were to talk about our vacation in 1958, you would get completely different stories. Actually, it’s really dear to have several relatives give their own interpretations of the same story.”

Gould even suggests allowing a family member to correct your own incomplete or immature memories of an event. “Maybe you remember bits and pieces of stories you’ve heard family members tell. To have an older person tell the actual story can be quite humorous. My interpretation of what I heard when I was little was very different than the story I got about it when I was old enough to care.”

It also pays to be patient. “You need to build trust in the relationship,” Gould says. “You don’t just launch into deep stories with high emotional impact. The stories you may get at first may be relatively light or superficial, compared to the ones you get after working on your relationship.”

So even if your mother pales at the sight of a tape recorder, or your chatty cousin clams up at the idea of committing her gossip to paper, don’t lose heart. A worthwhile story awaits inside every reticent relative, just waiting for you to get ’em talking.

A version of this article appeared in the March 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.