The Responsibility of a Conversation

Every person has memories and stories from their lives. Sometimes it can be difficult to get people to share their stories and memories in a formal interview while being recorded and signing a release form. Beyond the level of comfort that is required for most people to open up and share pieces of their past, is the trust that must be created between the two individuals to have a successful interview. Medical and psychological researchers have developed codes of ethic when it comes to working with individuals. Guidelines and standards have even been published by the Oral History Association “to uphold certain principles, professional and technical standards, and obligations.”

In visiting the senior center at the Auburn Housing Authority recently, the implications of what it means to be responsible to an interviewee was made clearer to me by gaining first-hand experience in conducting oral history interviews with several residents. A certain amount of trust and familiarity had to be built before many residents would begin speaking in a less reserved way. But just the same as any conversation with a stranger, even if the audio records and signed forms had not been present, the interviewee started to move beyond simply answering questions and started to share more in the conversation as I began to respond and actively listen to what they had to say. Laughing at their stories and asking more questions when they began to share something that was of interest to me. Sharing in the conversation in this way familiarity, comfort, and trust began to develop more and more.

Although these men I helped interview did not know what exactly would become of the recordings of the interview that contained personal memories and moments from their lives, they trusted what we had told them. Legal and ethical responsibility are often required and simply to meet, there is still a moral responsibility that researchers and interviewers have to the interviewee. To the person that has placed a certain amount of trust in them to use their memories and shared experiences in a way that will benefit others and not harm the individual. Where that responsibility ends and begins is difficult to say without looking at each and every situation, but the interviewer unquestionably has certain obligations to the individual, the project, and the profession.

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