Ask for a story: An idea for staying connected over the distance

Posted on April 8, 2020 at 6:00 am

By Dana Mannino

During this time of social distancing, we’ve all been urged to check in with people—especially people from an older generation who have to shelter in place much more drastically.

I hope that all of you have taken this to heart and called your loved ones. I’m a list maker as well as a librarian, so I curated a list of friends and family, and I rotate through calling a few people each day.

And, truth be told, this is one of my coping mechanisms.

Meme: Introverts please check on your extrovert friends.... We're not OK!
Image meme from

Have you seen this meme?

It’s not entirely accurate: Your extrovert friends are very busy. They are probably on the phone checking on you and grandma and grandma’s cat…

But even for an extrovert, conversations can lag by week three. There’s not a lot of wonderful new things to share. “How’re you doing?” “Same as last week.”

Fortunately, there is a remarkably powerful remedy. Storytelling!

Try taking a break from talking about the present (it’s boring) or speculating about the future (it’s stressful). Instead, let’s draw strength from the past.

There are great benefits to personal storytelling, both for the listener and the teller.

When someone shares a story about their life, the act of telling it helps them recognize the value their life has had. It also builds connection between the people having the conversation. Most importantly, sharing personal stories can also help a person get through a hard time by remembering that they have conquered obstacles before.

If you need inspiration (or just some uplifting media to binge), check out personal stories from StoryCorps or The Moth Radio Hour.

You may think that you have heard every story Uncle Jim remembers. After all, he tells the same one every Thanksgiving! But that’s probably not true.

We tend to tell the funniest stories from our lives, but we often forget to tell the others.

I remember my younger sister asking me about a particular time in our shared family history. I summed up my experience, which I assumed was common knowledge. Boy was I wrong! She said, “Wow. I never knew that.”

So you see, Uncle Jim may have a story about himself that he thought everyone knew, but in reality, no one ever asked. So I urge you to ask!

Some people feel nervous about asking for a story. It’s understandable. Not all our stories have happy endings. But you don’t have to dredge up painful family conflicts to find an untold story. Just ask about unknown details around a story you already know. There is a time for rattling skeletons in the family closet, but this doesn’t have to be it. Start with the comfortable.

For example, I’ve always known that my grandfather was a carpenter, but in my head that just meant mom called him to help build our playhouse. Once, on a long car ride, I asked him what he built for work. It turned out that we were driving past some grocery store warehouses that he had worked on.

I’m so hooked on family stories that I’ve gotten systematic about it. Before I visit an out-of-town relative, I recall what I know about their life, try to find a gap, and then write down a question to ask about the gap, such as “What was it like for you when you moved to…?”

A question that usually starts a good story for happily married folks is “How did you meet your spouse?” It’s not asked and told as often as you would think. Other times, I’ll ask a shot in the dark question, such as “Did you have a best friend growing up?”

I’m keeping statistics (it’s no wonder I’m a librarian), and of my eight married aunt-and-uncle couples and one living grandparent, I still have four such stories to hear.

If none of these questions are right for your situation, StoryCorps has put together really great lists of starter questions. Check it out!

Not sure how to ask for a story without sounding like an interrogator? Try tying it to something going on in your life: “(Name of child) sure is a handful these days. What do you remember about raising a three-year-old?”

Also, never underestimate the golden phrase: “I’ve been thinking about…” For example: “I’ve been thinking about how you decided to join the army, even though no one else in our family has served. What made you want to sign up?”

These questions are great because you are letting the other person know that you’ve been thinking about them even when they aren’t physically present. Everyone likes to be remembered and thought of in positive ways.

Once you get comfortable asking for stories, you might want to start saving them for posterity.

If that’s your cup of tea, I highly recommend StoryCorps’ DIY app. It walks you through the how-tos of conducting an interview, gives you the tools to record it, and offers you the possibility of having it saved in the Library of Congress.

If you find yourself getting really into unearthing family history, it’s probably time to check out the Library District’s digital resources Ancestry Library Edition and Heritage Quest Online. You may not find narratives, but you could find the bones that narratives are built on.

A quick search for the great-grandfather I never met pulled up census records and a WWII draft registration card complete with his signature. My cousins have dug farther and found ship’s passenger lists that revealed names of unknown great-great-uncles and even a 1925 newspaper story profiling our great-grandfather. Who knows what stories await you?

Today, we are more connected by technology than ever, yet we still struggle to feel deep personal connections.

During this time of adversity, I urge you to go beyond “Do you need anything at the store?” and reconnect with the people you love. By spending some time listening to one another’s stories, we may come out of this era of social distancing to find a more closely knit family, community, and world.

Dana Mannino

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