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40 family history interview questions to ask your loved ones

Digging back into your family history can be a complicated, messy affair, but it’s also incredibly rewarding and enlightening. Thanks to the rise of modern technology, genealogy sites, and genetics research, families are learning more about their backgrounds than ever before.

Even so, it can be intimidating to bring up history with family you don’t know well, or even those who are closest to you. To help get you started, we’ve put together some lists of great family history interview questions to get the ball rolling.

Why family history interview questions are important

Why is it so important to ask family history interview questions, anyway? Because family history questions help people remember things long forgotten and tell stories that might otherwise be lost. As the interviewer, it’s your place to help jog those memories.

The primary goal of interview questions about family background is to put your relative at ease and help them recall details about your family history that they don’t normally think about. Even tiny, seemingly insignificant details can tell you more about where people come from, when they spent time in a certain city, and who they might have met along the way.

How to best ask family history questions

Sitting your family members down to ask them the intimate details of their lives can feel a bit awkward and invasive. Be mindful of how they might feel about certain topics.

It’s a good idea to start with simple questions, such as name, birthplace, work life, and similar. Ease into deeper conversations by asking them to share beloved family stories, like their favorite memory of their grandparent or a place from their childhood home that made them feel happy.

A question like this helps connect the memory to a story and put the teller at ease. They’re exercising their memory but not venturing into territory that makes them feel like they want to shut down. It opens up the intimacy of a shared family narrative and gives them a chance to share some of that oral history with you.

We have some lists to help you get started with your interview. There’s a lot of information to uncover, so we’ve divided the lists into basic family history questions and more in-depth inquiries.

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Basic family history interview questions

  1. What is your full name (First, Middle, Surname)?
  2. Did you have any nicknames or aliases you went by?
  3. Has your birth name changed at any point through marriage, immigration, legal change, etc.?
  4. When and where were you born?
  5. How did you meet your spouse?
  6. Where did you go to school?
  7. What is the full name of each parent and where were they born?
  8. How did your parents meet?
  9. What was your religion growing up? Did you attend a church, synagogue, temple, etc.?
  10. How many siblings did you have and what are their full names?
  11. Did you know your grandparents? Great-grandparents?
  12. What do you know about your surname (origin, changes over the years, etc.)?
  13. What was your profession?
  14. Where did you work over the years?
  15. Which cities have you lived in during your lifetime?
  16. Did other extended family members live near you? Who?
  17. Where did you go on your first date with your spouse?
  18. Have you ever appeared in the newspaper, on television, or in other media?
  19. Does your family have any unique family heirlooms that have been passed down?
  20. Did you take family trips to a specific location?

Each question here is designed to break the ice and get family members talking. They’re all straightforward and hopefully easy to answer, provided there are no roadblocks or rifts in the family.

You may encounter more trouble with questions like these if a relative was adopted or is estranged from a parent. Consider those factors during the interview and be mindful if a certain topic seems too sensitive or is making them uncomfortable. Remember, this is the portion that’s supposed to help them get comfortable.

Deeper family history questions

Getting to the real meat of your family history involves moving past simple Q&A and into the realm of story. Every memory is part of the tapestry of your family, so set up a recording device (Rosy is great for this!) and start a dialog.

The following questions are a great jumping-off point for fleshing out your history and digging into the memories that make your family special. Use them as a guide and add in your own variations as needed!

  1. Tell me about your very first memory.
  2. Can you describe the house where you grew up?
  3. What was your favorite subject in school?
  4. If you had to pick one song that represented your childhood, what would it be and why?
  5. Did you have any pets? Which was your favorite?
  6. What is the most trouble you’ve ever been in?
  7. Which extracurricular clubs or sports did you participate in?
  8. What was a typical family dinner like? Did you all eat together? What was your favorite dish?
  9. What were the styles and fads like in your youth?
  10. What’s the first major world event you remember? Where were you and what were you doing?
  11. Tell me your favorite funny story from growing up with your family.
  12. Who were your best friends growing up? What did you do together?
  13. How has the world changed since your childhood and how has it stayed the same?
  14. If you’re a parent, how did you find out you were expecting?
  15. Tell me one lesson passed down to you by your parents that you’ve kept with you.

Every question on this list is intended to spark conversation and deeper exploration. Encourage your relative to tell a story and respond with open-ended questions that get them to keep talking. Don’t try to direct the conversation too much. Often the most interesting memories and stories come out of these stream of consciousness talks!

Supplemental interview questions about family background

With the rise of genetic ancestry testing sites like 23 And Me and Ancestry.com, people are able to get more accurate information about their lineage than ever before. While these kits can’t necessarily tell you the names of long-lost relatives, it can connect you with people who share your DNA and give you a better picture of where you come from.

If any of these new connections are up for participating in an interview, you can learn much more about your family. You may find out another branch of your family moved to a certain area or that you shared a grandparent, and so much more.

Use these five interview questions about family background to learn more about your origins, ethnicity, and shared history.

  1. Are there any physical features that run in your family?
  2. Where does your family say they originated from?
  3. Do we have a relative in common? Which one?
  4. Do you live close to other members of your family? Where?
  5. Which traditions have been passed down to you?

See if another question crops up while you’re conducting the interview and, if everyone’s comfortable, keep the conversation rolling. You may discover that this distant family member has more in common with you that you ever could have guessed!

It’s fascinating to see all the puzzle pieces come together when you’re weaving together your family story. It’s theorized that all living humans share a recent common matrilineal ancestor, so ultimately we really are more alike than we are different.

Turning the interview into a story

As you conduct your interviews, it’s important to consider how you’re going to record those conversations for reference. You can always take notes or transcribe as you speak, but that risks vital nuance and information being lost, as well as the speaker’s voice and inflection.

In the past, interviewers often used a tape recorder to capture their interviews, and you have plenty of options available to you these days. You can always use the voice memos option on your phone or other smart device, or another digital recorder. If you can record video, that’s always an option, too!

A key feature of Rosy is her ability to record notes, stories, and other dictation, which makes her the perfect helper for recording special family memories in audio form.

Piece your notes together later and use the voice recordings of your loved ones to create a complete story of your family’s history!

Keep the family history safe and accessible

Whichever family history questions you choose to ask, you’ll have a wealth of information at your fingertips after you’ve recorded it all. When you use Rosy, you can be sure the details are safe and secure on a private server that you can share with only the people you choose, including the rest of your family.

There are big plans for expanding Rosy’s capability with an app so you can create comprehensive stories and videos using your audio clips, recorded video, and scanned photos and documents. Whether you’ve been asking family history interview questions for your own reference so you can learn more about your origins or you’re planning to put together a video montage for a family reunion, Rosy will be there to help.

Do you have ideas for other unique questions that’ll open up the potential for sharing more great family stories? Let us know! If you’re interested in pre-ordering your very own Rosy digital family organizer, you can do so right now.

Knowing where you come from is a very powerful thing. Tell your family’s story in a way you’ve never been able to before!