Sharing stories is part of what it means to be human
Here’s a guide to help you get ready for your interview. Please read carefully and feel free to take notes. Preparing your questions ahead of time will ensure that the process goes well and is rewarding for you and your friend or loved one.
Think of the interview as a conversation, because that’s exactly what it is. When speaking with your friend or family member, be sure to seek out what they can tell you about the past and also what they can tell you about life in the present. The stories and memories you hear are valuable, not necessarily because they represent historical facts, but because they embody human truths and are a person’s particular way of looking at the world.
Structure the interview as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Build on your questions and link them together in a way that makes sense. Break the ice with some basic biographical questions, such as, “Where were you born?” “Where did you grow up?”
Or ask about a story you once heard him or her tell about the topic you are interested in. Once your person starts talking, just listen, and if you hear something that moves you, ask for more details.
Be sure to ask open-ended questions and avoid questions that will bring only a yes or no response. To get as much specific information as possible, ask follow-up questions: “Could you explain?” “Can you give me an example?” or “How did that happen?”
Show interest and listen carefully to what is being said. Keep eye contact and encourage your friend or family member with nods and smiles. Be yourself! Feel free to laugh or even cry with your person. Don’t be afraid to ask emotional questions like, “How did that make you feel?”
Participate in the conversation without dominating it. Try not to interrupt and don’t be afraid of silences — give the person you are interviewing time to think and respond. Be alert to what they want to talk about and be prepared to detour from your list of questions if he or she takes up a rich subject you hadn’t even thought of!
Some Possible Questions
Here are some suggestions to get you started. Feel free to pick and choose among them to suit your own interests, and change the wording if you wish. Ultimately, the most useful questions will be those that you develop yourself based on your knowledge of your own family.
Don’t tie yourself to a formal list of questions; use your questions as guideposts for the interview. Be flexible and have fun!
- What is your name? Where and when were you born?
- Where did you grow up, and where have you lived?
- What was life like when you were a kid? What is your earliest memory?
- What jobs have you had, and what do you do for a living now?
Q: What do you know about your family name? Tell me what your name means.
Q: Please share some stories about how your family first came to the United States.
Q: If your family member is a first-generation immigrant, you might ask:
- Why did you come to the United States, and what was the journey like?
- What were some of your first impressions and early experiences in this country?
- If you didn’t speak any English when you arrived, how long did it take to learn the language? Please share any humorous anecdotes related to you learning the English language.
Q: What languages do you speak?
- If you speak a different language in different settings, such as home, school, or work, please explain why.
- If there are any expressions, jokes, stories, celebrations where a certain language is always used, please share some examples.
Q: What stories have come down to you about your parents and grandparents?
Q: What are some of your favorite childhood memories?
Q: How are holidays traditionally celebrated in your family?
- What holidays are the most important? If there special family traditions, customs, songs, or foods, please describe them.
- If your family has created its own traditions and celebrations, please share why and what they are.
Q: How many people are in your family? How often does the family hold reunions?
Q: Who was the love of your life?
- How did you meet?
- When did you first fall in love? Where? Did you marry?
- If there are any family secrets you’d like to share, now’s the time!
Q: What family heirlooms or keepsakes and mementos do you possess?
- Why are they valuable to you?
- What is their history? How were they handed down?
- What are the memories or stories connected with them?
Local History and Community Life
Q: Describe the place where you grew up.
- What was it like? How has it changed over the years? Do you miss living there? Why or why not?
Q: How have historical events affected your family and community?
- For example, what were some of your experiences during World War II? The Civil Rights Movement? Vietnam War?
Q: What are some of your family’s cultural traditions and occupational skills?
- How did you first get started with this particular tradition/skill?
- What got you interested? Why do you believe the skill or tradition is important?
- In what context is the skill/tradition performed? For whom and when?
- What do you value most about what you do? Why?
- What do you think is the future of this tradition? What are its challenges and opportunities? Are others learning and practicing the tradition?
Q: Do you have anything that you would like to add that we haven’t covered?
Q: Thank you for your time; this concludes this interview.