Picture yourself mingling at a social gathering. Which would you find less intimidating to be asked by a stranger?
“Tell me a story about your boss at your last job?” OR
“Where did you get that cool necklace?”
I think the necklace approach is less threatening, and could just yield the more intimate conversation. If you asked me about the shiny necklace that I had chosen to wear for the occasion, I could tell you about my relationship with my delightful mother-in-law who gave it to me. That might lead me to the occasion I received it, and I might even tell you why I wore it tonight. That is a lot of context!
As personal historians, when we tune into something that is important to our clients, we have a chance to hear their deeply held values as they relate to uniquely personal treasures in their lives.
Humans love shiny objects. We all seem to have a special collection of something. What do you collect, either intentionally or unintentionally?
Q: Why do we hold on to these old things?
A: Because these artifacts say something about us when we say something about them. Sometimes we don’t even realize we have a collection until someone notices all our little bowls and then asks us what that is all about. Who can resist being seen, noticed, listened to?
I am a big fan of the art and the value of asking questions, but after raising two sons and working as a mental health counselor with reluctant children, I have come to appreciate a more oblique approach to information gathering.
I like to know what motivates people, and it is fun to listen for clues about that in conversations on the air, in the clinic, or on the patio. I wondered what would happen if I recorded people talking about the things they love? What if we focused more on memories and reflections than on telling stories with beginnings, middles and ends? Would there still be juicy content?
The short answer is YES. The stories just come tumbling out. For some people, talking about the things they love is just way easier than telling a “story.
Our thumbprints are all over the items we have collected and saved over the years. Maybe our loved ones don’t want our treasures, but these treasures can be a tool for connecting us to one another. Photographing a collection and making audio recordings of people sharing their favorite things conveys a sense of tempo, feeling, and personality that goes along with the collection. This is the stuff that bonds us to one another. And as my most recent client said, “Sometimes it's deeper than you think, talking about where a piece came from, or what it means to you.”
If you are working with someone who seems a bit guarded when you ask direct questions about their lives, try talking with them about their stuff —the stuff of life.
Kate Manahan is a radio producer/host and oral historian who founded Thumbprint Audio in late 2020. Her new personal history business records family and individual narratives, sometimes represented in client-narrated picture books. Kate lives and works in Kennebunk, ME and collects rocks, old political buttons, and—as it turns out—things with images of birds on them.
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