I wish everyone in my family was an avid genealogist, but the reality is that I’m related to people who are very interested in our family tree and I’m related to people who just aren’t. I also have people in my family who are uncomfortable being “put on the spot” when I ask them about their childhoods, parents, job history, etc. and that usually doesn’t lead to very good information for me to add to my research.
I have, however, changed my approach to talking to my family about genealogy and I’ve found ways to make it easier to get those conversations started and keep them from becoming boring or uncomfortable or off-topic. Well, most of the time, lol.
Here are my top 8 tips when talking to your relatives about your family tree:
1 /// Take a “highlights” family tree notebook with you.
One of the huge perks of keeping my family tree notebooks on my iPad is that I always have the full notebook with me, ready to share with others. However, many of my notebooks are upwards of 300 pages and that’s a lot to go through when someone has never seen the notebook before. Some relatives also can’t get a good sense of the notebook when it’s digital, so I’ve learned to print out relevant pages to make a mini-notebook of the highlights or of the particular thing I’m looking for more information on.
Side note: I’ve found that they shouldn’t be more than 40 pages or people get overwhelmed and start skipping through and becoming less interested. Even if you’re excited about your research, really try to narrow it down when you’re choosing what to print.
2 /// Put post-it notes with specific questions in your notebook.
When I’m looking for specific information, I write the question down and stick it on the relevant page in my highlights notebook so it pops out at us while we’re going over the notebook together. This is also helpful if you’re going to a family gathering where your notebook might be passed around without you being right there. People will see the question and if they can answer it, they’ll likely find you and tell you right away.
3 /// Don’t ask everything at once.
I would love to know absolutely everything about what life was like with my great-grandparents in Oakland but my only remaining great-aunt would be overwhelmed if I sat down and pummeled her for information. I try to keep it to about 7 specific questions at the absolute most when we get to see each other and then I happily accept any extra information she wants to give.
4 /// Take 5-10 photos whenever you see family.
Again, you don’t want to overwhelm people, but a small handful of old photos can spark memories and conversations. This is a great time to pull out the photos of people you can’t identify or the ones where you don’t know where people were or what they were doing. Just be sure you have a place to write down what people tell you (post-its are great!) so you can keep that info with the right photo until you have time to put it in your notebook.
5 /// Tape people casually.
I love that smartphones can take a video so easily but most people get flustered if you put a phone in their face and start taping. If you can, try starting the video function on your phone and then propping it up somewhere out of the way so you can capture 10-20 minutes of video without having to stand there and hold it. I’m not telling you to tape people in secret though! You have to tell people that you have a recording going and explain that you wanted to get some footage of people sharing family memories. Otherwise, that’s definitely creepy, even if it’s your relatives!
6 /// Don’t use holidays to bring up sore topics.
My great-grandmother had an affair and ended up having a child (my great-uncle) with that person. This is common knowledge in my family but it’s a sore topic and not one that I would bring up over Christmas dinner, even if I was curious about getting all the details straight. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you’re making (or ruining!) new family memories whenever you guys are together.
7 /// Do as much research as you can before you talk to family.
Your family members are probably the best source you can ever go-to for family information BUT if you can put together a skeleton story of how things went over the course of an ancestor’s life, it’s much easier for people to confirm information or add additional information than it is for them to come up with everything they know about people. For people who struggle with their memory, having written information they can look over is also likely to jog some of those memories.
8 /// Put it in a letter.
Sometimes people just write or email better than they interview. Also, if you don’t see your family very often, feel free to start up a correspondence about your family history. All of my other advice applies here - don’t overwhelm people, stick to a short list of questions, and include a thin highlights notebook to make it easier. I’ve even done genealogy “care packages” with cookies baked from a family recipe, DNA test kits, photo books, and flash drives with home movies on them. Get creative and you might get better results for your research or, at the very least, establish yourself as the person to call if they ever want to get rid of anything!