Posted on November 9, 2022 at 6:00 am
Each Thanksgiving, StoryCorps encourages us to sit down with an elder, mentor, family member, friend, or someone we admire and ask them for a story.
This can be as casual as asking Grandpa, “Who came to Thanksgiving dinner at your house when you were a kid?” Or it can be as structured as planning a formal sit down and recording an oral history with the StoryCorps app.
Either way, making the effort to ask for a story offers a gratifying way to stay focused on the advantages of togetherness and avoid rote conversations about food dishes, political candidates, and sports teams.
Switching gears and really listening to personal stories about those gathered with us can also strengthen our connections and remind those we’re with that their lives have meaning.
Asking for a story may feel uncomfortable at first, but once you’ve tried it, you’ll likely get hooked. For Librarian Dana, a warm afterglow from hearing or telling a shared personal story can last for days.
Dana’s family once spent a weekend with her great aunt and uncle to celebrate their wedding anniversary. Dana’s mom asked how the two met each other, and Dana’s aunt got more and more animated as she spoke:
“My sister said, ‘Put on some lipstick. Tex is coming over.’ I didn’t know who Tex was, but I put on some lipstick anyway. Three months later we were married.”
The family laughed and demanded more details. She obliged. The next morning, Dana’s aunt was still aglow, telling all her friends at church: “We had the best conversation last night.” Everyone felt more connected, and grateful too. Grateful that these two people had found each other. Grateful that their marriage had lasted so long. Grateful that we could enjoy a warm family time in their home.
Of course, not all family stories are fresh. For Melissa, Public Services Specialist at the library, some family lore has been told and heard dozens of times.
If this is the case for you, it can be a little trickier to elicit a story that hasn’t become rote. But that just provides a healthy challenge! Try steering the conversation towards a topic you haven’t heard about yet. What is it they haven’t told you that you’re curious about?
Or spend some time one-on-one with the quiet person in the room. Introverts have great stories too!
By talking one-on-one with her dad, Melissa finds it easier to hear his stories—like the one about how, when he was a child, his mom would drop some loose change in his hand, and he’d take the (now defunct) streetcar all by himself into downtown Kansas City to attend dance classes. Melissa had never heard anything about her dad ever dancing until years after he had already retired. His dance medal now sits prominently in Melissa’s China cabinet.
The folks at StoryCorps have been facilitating conversations like these for almost 20 years. They really know how to get a great conversation going. You can read their Tips for Great Conversations to prepare for the moment when you ask for a story.
One of our favorites is tip 8—Encourage Vivid Details. You can do this by asking questions that call up sensory memories, such as “What did your kitchen smell like when you were growing up?”
An especially important tip is to pick some questions in advance. We recommend doing that even if you’re trying for casual dinner conversation rather than a structured interview. StoryCorps has made it easy by compiling lists of great questions, sorted by topic or relationship.
Another great tip is to be prepared to ask follow-up questions you didn’t pre-plan, such as “Why did you stop dancing?” or “What happened after that?”
Family stories can make for a cozy evening, but have you considered that they might be of interest to future historians too? Oral histories allow historians to move beyond the bare facts of a historical event and rediscover how it felt, smelled, and sounded. Your conversation with your loved ones can be part of that.
The StoryCorps app gives you the option to upload your interview to the Library of Congress. There you can tag it with relative keywords to help historians connect your story to important events or groups.
Ready to get started? Here’s what you need to record an interview using the StoryCorps app:
For more information, visit The Great Thanksgiving Listen’s FAQ page.
Enthusiastic about collecting family stories? Here are some additional resources available to you from the library:
Family gatherings can be stressful. But we gather anyway because humans have a deep, ingrained need for connection. A good meal is nice, but a good conversation can make a precious memory. This Thanksgiving, we encourage you to refresh and deepen your dinnertime conversation.
Ask a good question, sit back, and listen.
Melissa Rhoades fulfilled a childhood dream when she started her first library position in 2016. As a Public Services Specialist at Spokane County Library District, she presents weekly storytimes, hosts programs, works on the 3D printing team, writes on the blog team, assists with collection maintenance, and tends the reference desk, among other tasks. Off the clock, she enjoys exploring the arts and the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
Dana Mannino is a librarian at Spokane County Library District. She plans programs for adults and serves as a liaison for the library to the Latinx community. At home, she hosts biannual Lord-of-the-Rings–themed parties and watches BritBox. How does she take her tea? Very, very seriously.