Interview Techniques to Avoid

It’s nearly summer and genealogists everywhere are making plans to connect with their extended family. For some, it’s a family reunion; for others, it’s a family wedding; and for others, it’s a research trip back to the family’s old stomping grounds. While many of our relatives are content to catch up on the latest family gossip and chow down on the potato salad, genealogists usually have an additional agenda. We’re looking at them and wondering, “What do they know about our ancestors?”

Naturally, we don’t want to waste this face-to-face opportunity to root around for family clues. In practical terms, you probably can’t interview everyone. You need to settle on a few people who are likely to know, and remember, the most. Zero in on those chosen few. But, before you forge ahead with your family fact-finding mission, keep a few things in mind and avoid these interview snafus.

1. The Ambush Interview
Don’t expect your flustered relatives to spontaneously pluck dates and names from their cobwebby memories as soon as they step out of the car. Timing is everything.
Tell your relatives in advance that you’re gathering information, and ask them to bring along any photos or documents tucked away in the attic. Be sensitive to individual needs. If Aunt Hilda is an early riser, suggest a pre-breakfast coffee and interview on the porch. You’ll get much better answers that way than if you wait until 11:00 the night before she leaves for home.

2. The “Que Sera, Sera” Interview
“Whatever will be” interviews can fall flat. It helps to be prepared.  Put together a list of questions ahead of time. Think about what Uncle Harry is likely to know and remember. Ask for specifics and avoid questions that can be answered with a frustrating “yes” or “no.” Instead of asking, “Do you remember your grandma?” try instead, “Tell me what you remember about your grandma.”

That said, be open to rambling off-the-topic answers, too, because some of the best stuff comes out during a ramble.

3. The “I’ll Remember Everything” Interview
Don’t rely on your own memory. Take notes. Lots of notes. Or better yet, let technological gizmos take notes for you. Use a digital tape recorder or a video camera. And, keep that recorder handy at all times. When hanging out with relatives, I’ve whipped out my digital recorder in the car, in restaurants, while out watering the garden, and while feeding the cows. Seriously, I’ve gleaned some good details from a relative while tossing hay.

One caveat though--don’t play James Bond and conceal listening devices everywhere; be upfront and explain the gadgets to your techno-shy relatives. If they balk and become self-conscious about being recorded, settle for the note-taking approach. Don’t try to get down every word, just the key points. 

4. The Marathon Interview
Your relatives need to stretch their legs and rest their vocal cords. They need to recharge their brain cells. Don’t expect them to give up hours and hours to feed your ancestral appetite. Their motives for attending the family shindig probably stem from something other than family history. They want to eat, drink, and be merry with all the cousins.

If your cousin is looking longingly toward the horseshoe pit, don’t keep him from the fun. Divide your interviews into reasonable chunks of time, and know when to stop. No matter how much you poke and prod, they just won’t remember some things.

5. The Accusatory Interview
Beware of pushing relatives into an awkward ancestral corner. Sure, you may have good reason to believe the rumors about your great-grandfather’s run-in with the law. But, if your relative insists it isn’t so, or feigns ignorance, don’t press him or her. You can probably get the information from some other source.  

6. The Procrastinated Interview
Life is capricious. We think we’ll have tomorrow to get those interviews done, but sometimes tomorrow is too late. When you’re with your relatives this summer, don’t squander the opportunity to interview some of them. Avoid these interview snafus and you’ll be in good shape.

So how do you get your family talking? Leave a comment and share your valuable tips and pointers for interviewing relatives.

Genealogist and family interviewer Mary Penner never leaves home without her digital recorder. She can be reached through her website at

Other articles in the 05 June 2011 Weekly Discovery: 

Tips for Translating Records  

Family History Tip: Naming Use Photographs to Jog Memories 

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