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Ask Questions to Elicit the Personal Voice

When respondents tell their stories, they can assume a personal or a public voice. (link to "Emotions as Data" in Qualities of Good Interviews). While narratives that assume an authoritative or official-sounding public voice may still be informative, interviewers should always try to encourage respondents to reveal their first-hand experiences in a personal voice.

Example: Eliciting a Personal Voice

Interviewer: Do you think that your relationship with your wife is affected by living here?

Gerry: In a number of ways. Women in the West Indies are a lot more economically dependent upon their men. Because of that they are much more subjugated to their men and they have to put up with a lot more nonsense from their men. That is a very serious… and the most important difference is the lessening of economic dependence on a man. Back home she might have been working but the nature of the society there is such that women put up with a lot more guff than they do here.

By asking the respondent to talk about his relationship with his wife, the interviewer invites him to speak in a personal voice. Unfortunately, the respondent did not take up this manner of speaking. Instead, he uses general expressions such as "women in the West Indies," "they," and "their men" to talk about the general situation back home.

Interviewer: Would you have given her 'a lot more guff' there than here?

Gerry: Probably. Well, here you are forced to help with housework and things like that. Back in the islands you could always find someone to come in and clean the house for a little money, for next to nothing. Very small wages. Here you can't get that kind of help so when both people work it is not a question of coming home and sitting down and saying where's my supper. She is working too. It's a totally different…

The interviewer did a very nice job here. She picks up the term "guff" from the respondent's previous answer to phrase this question. This is a good example of being an attentive listener. By asking the respondent to talk about how he would have treated his wife, she encourages a personal voice. To get even closer, she could ask, "Have you been giving your wife less "guff" because you are here?" However, the respondent might perceive the question as too threatening. Although the respondent uses "you" instead of "I," the personal voice does come in at the end when he says, "…where's my supper. She is working too."

Interviewer: Do you think that there would be a difference in the closeness, the talking side of marriage, here and there?

Gerry: I think in the islands it is still a male dominated society, and this may sound like hell, but a lot of guys don't really talk, they just dictate. They get away with a lot, things that would be hard to get away with here. I think you are forced to communicate more here. In the islands, you have all these people around you, and there are no strange people, just family, your friends, you are in and out. Because of the way that one lives in the society, so alone, you are forced to communicate a bit more here. I believe that…

In comparison to the previous questions, here the interviewer refrains from making reference to the respondent's personal life. Such general questions often lead to a public voice, as this example indicates.

Caribbean Interview # 10

Exercise:"Who is Talking?"

Use the following three excerpts to comment on personal versus public voices in the phrasing of questions and in responses.

Excerpt 1

Interviewer: Can you give any examples of intermarriage, like are there any kinds of people that your parents would have objected to if you wanted to marry, any unspoken rule about who you can and can't marry in St. Vincent.

Gerry: I don't know, it is very difficult to say in answer to this question. I wish this was off the record, but I'll say it anyway. In St. Vincent you have a number of different groups of Vincentians. You have people we call Bajaians, poor whites who came from England 150 years ago, and who live in St. Vincent. So we still call them Bajaians. Also Portuguese who came after slavery was abolished. They could have come from Madeira, or some part of Portugal. You have Africans whose ancestors came as slaves, and you have the Caribs and some Indians, predominantly black. While in St. Vincent your parents would probably tell you that you don't get mixed up with the Bajaians, whose ancestors were white but there was a lot of inbreeding and lack of education, and so your parents might discourage you from marrying those poor whites. That is, black parents... they tell the children that they ought to marry up in colour, but not to poor whites. If you are brown skinned you should not marry someone darker than yourself. That was a number of years ago. But I believe all of that has changed. As long as the man has a good education, or even the woman has a good education, good reputation, then there are no restrictions. In Montreal people marry whomever they feel comfortable with. I know that there are a lot of women, Vincentian women, black women, that they wouldn't mind a relationship with a white man because a white man would treat them better than a black man. My brother is married to a French Canadian woman. My daughter, the one in Toronto is married to a guy from Chile, so I don't believe that personally I have any problems with people marrying whoever they want to marry. I don't think my family would have any problems with that.

Caribbean Interview #10

Excerpt 2

Pay close attention to the last answer given by the respondent. What voice(s) does his answer project? Explain.

Interviewer: Can you give some examples of intermarriage in St. Vincent?

Paul: We have a small South Asians population, and a few Europeans. Most are Africans and so intermarriage isn't common. Until Vincentians go away and may bring a spouse back there.

Interviewer: How would it be looked upon?

Paul: It would be accepted. It's only recently that Black consciousness has been adopted from Stokely Carmichael, and Malcolm X and others. There are those cases where the nationalists who advocate certain things, but it's not a problem in St. Vincent.

Interviewer: Is it a problem in Montreal?

Paul: People say it is widely accepted here. A few might have their own views but most would accept intermarriage without problems. My own views are based on the fact that the Black race is used for a dumping ground. When there is intermarriage, white-Black, or Chinese-Black, the kids are always considered Black. Why can't there be acceptance of the couple, of the family, and the kids be considered white or Chinese sometimes. Marriage is a personal decision, and people fall in love. My question is based to the Blacks: Are you marrying this person because you are in love, or because you have a complex about this person? Is it that you want your kids to be fairer? Is it that you want acceptance from this person? Or are you really in love. A lot of people get married because of complexes. I cannot be the one, for my race, who is being pushed to the edge all the time.

Caribbean Interview # 4

Excerpt 3

Interviewer: How much freedom should a child have?

Gerry: That used to be a point of tremendous discussion with us. Once you give the child a basic meaning, you have to supervise and get certain rules established. A child should be seen and a child should be heard. A child should be allowed to exercise freedom within his age group, can go out and associate with other children. If he says he will home by midnight that means 12:00 not 12:05, and I think that once you have begun to establish that this comes with responsibility. A child is a growing organism and I don't believe that the parents should be constantly talking with the child and trying to make up his mind for him.

Interviewer: Did the mothers of your children ever disagree with you? Any disagreements about obedience?

Gerry: From the reports I got I think that the children were unusually good and the discipline they got in the West Indies—our parents used to discipline us by beating us, that was part of the culture, you did something you got a whack—and I don't believe in that. Any child you talk to them, that is effective. Maybe there are kids who are just terrible but I don't believe in hitting children.

Interviewer: Did their mothers hit them?

Gerry: Sure they lost their tempers sometimes and I imagine that you have to spank one or two but not in a regular patterns.

Caribbean Interview #10

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