When your goal is to document traditional handicraft and to do ethnographic fieldwork, you will most likely be working a lot with older people. If you have not had many such experiences, it might be confusing or even intimidating – especially as there are many cultural stereotypes concerning aging. It is helpful to be aware of some age-related issues and your own prejudices about the aging process, before starting to work with them.
As an interviewer, you can do a lot to assure a smooth and comfortable trans-generational interaction. Below we share some thoughts and special features of working with older people. Not all of these suggestions may apply to your particular situation – simply use what works for you! Remember: older people are not a homogeneous group and do not let their personalities be defined merely by age.
How to prepare your informant for work in front of the camera
Invest time in planning and introduction. Define your own goals and intentions and share them openly with your informants. Discuss with them how to make it a rewarding and meaningful experience for both of you.
To create an informal atmosphere, prepare your informants ahead of time. They should be aware of how much time the filming session will take, whether or not their participation will be anonymous, and what they can expect during the whole process. As older generations might not have much knowledge about filming routines, keep them informed of the process. Being in front of a camera has different connotations for different age groups. For instance, it might be a good idea to explain the possible need for multiple takes as a normal course of action to avoid later feelings of failure or frustration.
Try to provide as many comforts as possible to help your informants feel more at ease. Be ready to adjust your working pace – older people’s activity levels may vary significantly during one day, or from day to day.
How to adapt to different communication styles
The best communication strategy is to be authentic, express your true feelings and to be respectful towards your partners.
Be attentive of how you interact with older adults. Addressing the elderly person as Mr., Mrs., or Ms., shows respect, but using their first name might create a more informal and casual atmosphere. Make sure that everyone is comfortable with your choice.
Be ready to slightly adapt your normal communication style. This means becoming aware of age-related issues. You should consider your voice level and tone – when getting older, many people have trouble hearing and need the words to be clear and well-articulated. Be prepared to repeat yourself. Consider the way you speak to older people. Remember to pause between your sentences and ask one question at a time. Keep your sentences brief and simple and make it easy to follow your text and to respond. Do not overdo this though; treat your informants like adults, do not talk down to them.
Different generations use different vocabulary and body language. Some concepts and words that you use might not be familiar to them and vice versa. You cannot always control what influence your tone or words have on a person from a different generation, but don’t worry about this too much – this might also provoke fun conversations.
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Communication during a video-recording is a complex process – especially with someone of a different age. Good preparation and time commitment will make the process run smoothly and provide your older informants a greater sense of confidence and esteem which will result in a better video.