Ask an Expert: Carrie Tippen

Ask an Expert is PULSE’s advice column featuring the perspectives of Chatham faculty, staff, and community members. In each column, our resident experts will tackle a new conundrum that they’re uniquely qualified to solve or, at least, provide insight on. In this edition, Dr. Carrie Tippen, assistant professor of English, leans into her unique expertise: how to connect with our older family members.

Tippen, Carrie_Small.jpg

What tips or strategies do you recommend for getting older family members to open up and share their stories?

There isn’t some secret way to get the older adults in your life to tell their stories. You won’t be surprised to hear that my answer to this question is a pretty simple one: ask them!

A good place to start is with a story that you already know well, or a time in your loved one’s life that they enjoy talking about often. When a familiar story starts, this is where you need to listen most closely. Instead of nodding politely and listening quietly, ask more questions.

Ask questions like a journalist. Start with the Ws: who, what, where, when, and why. Maybe start by asking yourself why: why do you want stories from your loved one? What is it that you really want to know? If you only want to know names and dates and a timeline, then that will shape the W questions you ask. But if you really want to get to know the stories behind those facts, you’ll have to ask more and more direct questions. Keep asking follow-up questions. Listen with curiosity.

Ask questions like a therapist. The old joke is that the therapist isn’t really listening, just asking “And how did that make you feel?” to make you think they’re listening. But if you really want to know, ask about the interior life of your loved one, not just the facts. What were they thinking, feeling, hoping, fearing, missing? What is the emotional dimension of the story? How, indeed, did that make them feel?

Ask questions like a writer. If you were going to write this scene for a novel or a play or a movie, what would you need to know to fully capture the scene? Try asking questions about the sensory experiences attached to the memory: smells, sounds, tastes, colors and images, sensations. These can be great triggers of other memories, too. You may get to know more by helping the narrator to really set the scene.

Ask questions with props. Take out the recipe box, photo album, quilt collection, closet, and use what you find to generate questions and spark memories. What’s this? Where did it come from? How did you use it? What does it remind you of? Don’t get in a hurry. It can feel urgent to get through the box or the photo album, but turn the pages slowly. Linger. Be alright with getting one story at a time.

There are some cool products out there that can help, too.
·      NPR’s StoryCorp has a great list of questions as well as an app for your smartphone to make a high quality audio recording for the Library of Congress archive.
· is a paid subscription that offers weekly email prompts to help subscribers write or record their memoirs one week at a time, to be bound in a print book at the end of the year.
·      The New York Times published a list of 36 questions from a psychological study designed to “succeed in making two strangers fall in love in the laboratory.” The questions are the kind that get people to share little intimate details you don’t get without asking, and both of you get to answer. Why not fall in love with your grandparent?

Finally, remember that your loved one has a whole life. Be curious about their life right now as much as you are curious about the distant past, and ask questions about lots of parts of their lives, not just the big events. Remember that all of our family members of all ages have stories to tell. What would it be like to talk to your children with the same kind of curiosity? What could your siblings tell you if you asked them these kinds of questions? What could you learn about the people around you if you always approached them with this kind of open curiosity?

Carrie Helms Tippen is Assistant Professor of English at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA, where she teaches courses in American Literature and Creative Writing.  Her new book, Inventing Authenticity: How Cookbook Writers Redefine Southern Identity (University of Arkansas Press), examines the rhetorical strategies that writers use to prove the authenticity of their recipes in the narrative headnotes of contemporary cookbooks. Her academic work has been published in Food and Foodways, Southern Quarterly, and Food, Culture, and Society.

Want to Ask an Expert?

1. Email with the subject line: ‘Ask an Expert’
2. Ask your question in the body of the email
3. We’ll find a qualified expert to tackle it