Interviewing the Reluctant Relative

by Sunny McClellan Morton | May 2, 2013

We often begin our family history research by asking living relatives what they know. Often they share memories and stories freely. But at some point, most of us will approach relatives who deflect questions about the past. You prepared for the family history interview, but your relative just won't talk. They put off invitations for interviews. They answer vaguely, change the subject, or outright clam up.

This can be frustrating to gung-ho family historians. Our worst brick walls shouldn't be our own family members, right? But, there may be really good reasons behind their reluctance. We can often overcome some of that when we show these characteristics: sensitivity, caring, courage, curiosity and patience.

Be Sensitive

Relatives are close-mouthed for many reasons. Some may think their lives or families are boring, or don't know much about the past. Many people don't recall the past clearly. It's natural not to be enthusiastic about sharing things you don't know, don't care about, or don't recall.

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Most families' lives are also littered with private tragedies, failures, broken relationships, secrets and just plain sensitive topics. We never know when we're going to hit one of these emotional landmines, and the person we're talking to may be very tense about where we step. He may want to shield himself from reliving painful memories; protect the feelings of living loved ones or avoid dishonoring those who have passed away. He may not be sure how we as listeners will handle unpleasant revelations.

We don't always know which of these reasons apply to our reluctant relative. Or sometimes we are aware of some barriers but not others. So how can we get our clammed-up relatives to chat with us?

Be Caring

It's easy for enthusiastic genealogists to give the impression that we care more about dead relatives than living ones. Common sense tells us to build sincere rapport before expecting someone--even a family member--to reveal private information. This is true even when we want to interview an in-law or distant cousin whose own life isn't our primary interest.

As time and circumstances permit, take a sincere interest in your reluctant relative. Ask about her own life: current interests, work, children, grandchildren, etc. Give that person a chance to talk about the things she cares most about. Depending on the person and situation, this may be a five-minute conversation or a back-and-forth that stretches over several years.

Finally, be open but not obnoxious about your interest in the family past. If the relative mentions a family member or event of interest, let him know you'd love to learn more. See how he responds and follow up--but don't push. Try to sense reasons behind any reluctance to talk.

Similarly, watch for topics that could segue into a family history conversation. Does he mention another relative with such affection you know he'd want to talk more about her? Has he inherited something interesting? Has he carried on a traditional family interest like farming, reading or sports that might open a heritage conversation?

Be Brave

At some point you'll ask directly to learn more about the past. How can you respond to different kinds of objections? Here are some suggestions:

The Reluctant Relative Says...

A Possible Response....

"Our family history isn't that interesting."

"It's interesting to me. I'm especially interested in....[name something or someone specific]."

"I never knew my [grandparents, real father, etc]."

"I would love to talk to you about people you did know [or anything you've heard about the relatives you didn't know.]" or "Who would be a better person to talk to about that person?"

"I don't remember much about all that."

"Can I ask you a few questions anyway? I'd love to hear what you do recall."

"Why do you want to dig up the past like this?"

"I want to understand my heritage a little better. I don't want to judge anyone; I just want to appreciate what they've gone through."

"I don't want to talk about the past."

"I respect that. I won't invade your privacy." Then, "Is there any specific story or person you would want to tell me about?" or "Okay. I hope if there's ever a story you want to tell, you'll let me know."

"I don't want everyone to know our business."

"We don't need to air our dirty laundry. But I'm guessing we have relatives you'd like us to remember--people you admired or who overcame difficult circumstances. I want to honor them."

Courage includes going ahead with an impromptu interview if the opportunity suddenly arises (even without preparation or a recorder). If this happens, listen intently and commit to memory the most important ideas and facts. Write down everything you remember as soon as possible. Clarify the most important parts in a follow-up chat: "I was trying to remember correctly some of the things you told me. Was it Aunt Lorna who...?" This shows you care about getting things right. You might even be able to open a second line of questioning. (Try to have a pen and paper nearby this time.)

Be Curious, But Respectful

When you do finally get to question your relative, keep your questions and tone free of accusation or judgment. Imagine that someone just told you her paternal grandfather abandoned her grandmother and four young children. If you say, "What a jerk!" you may shut down the rest of the story. Other responses might be more productive: "How old was your dad at the time? Did he ever talk to you about his dad?" Sometimes a neutral observation is even better: "That must have been so hard." That comment could prompt additional information, clarifications or your interviewee's opinions.

Show curiosity by asking good questions. As I mentioned in the last article, good questions are open-ended: they require more than a yes-or-no answer. They demonstrate your thoughtful attention to the conversation. They are specific enough that someone can give a specific answer. "Tell me about your childhood" is so vague that your subject will likely respond just as vaguely: "It was pretty good, I guess." Try more specific questions but don't bog down in detail: "What did you like about school?" "Tell me about kindergarten" is too specific for a starter question.

Listen intently. What additional details would help you imagine the person or event better, retell the story or flesh it out with research? Your interviewee says, "My mom grew up in Denver but moved to Dallas when she was a teenager." Good follow-up responses might include, "It must have been hard to switch high schools," or "Why did they relocate?" or even, "What suburb or part of town did she live in?" The first and second questions can lead to more understanding. The third question is a long shot, but could lead you to census listings, city directories or high school yearbooks.

Don't take your natural curiosity too far. It is insensitive to satisfy our curiosity at the cost of someone else's discomfort. When someone mentions an event that clearly caused deep pain (a loved one's death, a betrayal, a personal failure), don't ask how it felt. You might quietly ask how that experience changed or shaped them. Similarly, avoid questions that expose your relatives to embarrassment or shame, ask them to betray a confidence or ask them to pass judgments they have clearly withheld. Finally, look to "An Effective Oral History Interview with African Americans" by Char McCargo Bah for more advice on respecting cultural and generational boundaries; the principles she teaches here apply to more than African Americans.

Be Patient

It may take a while for someone to warm to the idea of sharing memories with you. The actual process of remembering also takes time. It may take a few weeks or more of ruminating or talking about the distant past before quality memories surface.

A person may also need time to decide which memories to share or process related emotions. Also, your questions may prompt the person to consider fully the influence or meaning of the past. This might happen in front of you--during the interview. Don't be afraid of silence or emotions. Watch for signs that she is deep in thought and may have more to say. After a minute of silence, you might prompt her: "It looks as if you have something more on your mind." If a topic is clearly affecting her negatively, gently ask if she'd like to change the subject but communicate your openness to listen.

Finally, part of patience is flexibility. If you are only willing to hear about a relative's service in the Korean War, you may come away disappointed. Be willing to accept whatever he is willing to share about the family past. At the end of every conversation, whether it was productive or not, thank your relative sincerely for his time and willingness to talk to you. Then ask who else might know some of the things you are trying to learn. Often these "referrals" yield great surprises--we sometimes don't realize who knows the most about our heritage. And you might be pleasantly surprised: the next person may not be a reluctant interviewee at all!


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