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Anthropologist on Gathering Family History: Ask Your Elders the Right Questions

Tired of Aunt Ida telling the same family story about pushing Uncle Elmer into the creek?

Maybe you get irritated with Grandpa Fleagle when he recites corny jokes that make him seem like a visitor from another dimension.

It's not their fault. Your relatives repeat the same family stories and jokes because people respond positively to them.

Yet they have experienced so much more during their lives. Things you don't hear about.

Elizabeth Keating, a professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, has just the plan to turn your relatives into fonts of profound personal history and intergenerational understanding.

She and her students have taken the precepts of anthropology and applied them to family storytelling. In this field, the social scientist is an outsider trying to crack the code of an unfamiliar culture by being both an insider and an outsider.

Essentially, Keating casts you as the anthropologist trying — gently and respectfully — to get into the minds of your relatives.

Keating has written a swell how-to book — with lined pages for your scribbled notes — titled "The Essential Questions: Interview Your Family to Uncover Stories and Bridge Generations."

"I have been astonished to find that many people actually know little of the lives of their parents and grandparents, even though they lived through some pretty interesting decades," she writes. "Even when I asked my students, some of whom majored in history and excelled at it, about the history of their own families, they were in the dark."

Several of Keating's introductory tips apply to journalists as well: Prepare your questions in advance. Choose a room without distractions. Regulate the talk, but not too much. Explain your goals.

Never be the first person to end a silence. Use supportive nonverbal cues, such as nodding, smiling, managing eye contact. Keep the pace slow. Try to elicit concrete details. Be prepared for unexpected emotional intimacy.

Read entire article at Austin American-Statesman