How To Ask the Right Questions

How to ask the right questions
An important and serious approach to learning more about your family history is by doing an interview with a relative. It could be with your parents, an aunt, grandparents, cousin, even a godparent. Generally you need to question a relative who is of a different generation, one that is older and can provide some insight to people and events you may not be aware ever took place.

The interview first must be requested. Never just spring a spur-of-the-moment full interview on a person. They will need to consent to being questioned and be given a general idea of what you want answers to.

The method of an approved interview can take several different paths. It can be done in person, on the phone, via email or written questions and responds sent using regular postal mail. Discuss with the person being interviewed what they feel most comfortable doing.

When you suggest to the relative what approach your questions will run, never say “Tell me all about yourself” or “Talk about your father’s entire life history”. That is too broad, too demanding a field to cover in one in person, phone or email interview. It can center on one individual, but start off with a few select questions.

Begin with the full name and key dates such as birth, marriage and if appropriate, a death date with the location of those events. This is part of the reason a relative needs to know ahead of time what person you need information about, so they can get they own documents and records gathered.

In reference to the name, ask about any nickname the person was known by. Sometimes that nickname was only used while they were a child and as an adult very few ever knew the nickname. With females, ask about married and maiden names. An ancestor may have been always known by their married name and it may take some searching and questioning to uncover the maiden name. When asking for the full name, this is where additional family names can be learned. If an ancestor was named Nannie Musselman Everhart, the middle given name can tie-in with an earlier ancestor’s surname and even the first given name may come from an aunt or grandmother’s name.

Just covering names, dates along with birth, marriage and death locations can constitute a full interview. If you are interviewing in person, ask if you can use a digital or tape sound recording or video. Phone interviews are more difficult because you will need to write a lot of notes, never depend on your memory. With regular or email you will have it written out already.

Never press or pry on what might be a sensitive topic; like an ancestor’s marriage or marriages. Sometimes when there was more than one marriage, not much is spoken or even known about another spouse.

Future interviews can include about childhood memories, occupations, schooling, hometown activities, sports, historical events, hobbies, favorite Christmas activities and travel. Making each topic an interview into itself will produce a vast array of information.

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