“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Author
In the 1930s scientists began examining the cognitive effects of labeling. According to a hypothesis by the linguist Benjamin Whorf, the words we use to describe what we see aren’t just random. They actually determine what we experience to a startling degree. And that can be dangerous.
You read a novel about an American serial killer. As a result you find yourself deducing that every young American man you meet might potentially be a serial killer. Does that make sense? Obviously not. Someone finds out you once climbed Helvellyn, and they’ve decided you’re a mountaineer. Is that accurate? Are you only a person who climbed a mountain, and nothing else? Are you defined by that one climb? Of course not.
We tell a lot of single stories in our lives. We tell single stories about the people who have failed us. “He is a looser.” “He’s a failure.” “She’s an alcoholic.” As if those stories could possible capture all the hopes and dreams, joys and passions that fill a person’s life. We tell single stories about groups of people, too. “They are all criminals.” As if those stories could ever include the remarkable stories of achievement, hard-work, and love. Unfortunately that is not the whole story or stories of other people.
Each person has a unique story, unlike any other. These stories are constantly changing and being rewritten, reconstructed, even discarded from the moment we are born until we die.
Everyone has a story to tell. You have yours, and if you pay close attention to your story, you will realize that your stories are collections of your experiences.
Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie, author of Americanah, one of The New York Times’s ten best books of the year, tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
Adichie explains that if we only hear about a people, place or situation from one point of view, we risk accepting one experience as the whole truth.
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete,” Adichie says in the video. “They make one story become the only story.”
Instead, she explains, we must seek diverse perspectives — and in turn, writers must tell our own stories. Telling the stories that only we can tell, about our experiences, hopes and fears, helps break down the power of cliches and stereotypes.
You can watch the full TED talk here:
When we take care to ask people what a good life might look like and invite them to share their stories of how their good life has previously manifested in their lives, a fuller truth is revealed. None of them are single stories, none of them stereotype, or diagnose, or fix. They are in sum, the human story, we understand them because of our shared humanity….
Adichie rightly points out that:
“How [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told — are really dependent on power.”
To illustrate this point further she notes:
“If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner.”
In recent years, the rise of social media has shifted how we tell stories. Instead of having to rely strictly upon images that professionals have captured with pens and cameras, we can access stories via smartphones and Twitter. It is a powerful way to understand the wider global context within which we are living and also to counteract the negative aspect of what Adichie refers to as “the danger of a single story.” This danger is the perpetuation of stereotypes by showing people, countries, and even continents in broad strokes. According to Adichie, if you “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, that is what they become.”It is your perspective that shapes the meaning of your stories.
I am very grateful to have many friends on Twitter and Instagram; I have friends from countries such India, Pakistan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Argentina, Spain, Italy, Britain, Ireland, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, USA, Canada and many other Nationalities. Each of this Social Media friends have told stories about themselves, their countries, their cities, they have told powerful, inspiring and human stories.On this grand life adventure, we all suffer, we all have hurts, and at some point or another we all experience shame, happiness, joy, peace, pain and other feelings, very much the same.I believe that telling our stories offers others the chance to know they are not alone, to see that others struggle and heal and struggle again — just like they do. To open up to a place in a different world that I could not travel or know very well without the authentic story of the real person who has lived in that part of the world.
Daily, I find it very important to listen to other people’s stories, develop relationships, and follow up with people. Much like sharing your my story can benefit others, engaging with people from other background than mine, and listening to their stories can broaden my scope of knowledge and understanding about others. I often spend precious time reaching out and talking to clients on the phone. Hearing what people are going through, what they have tried, what they have struggled with, plays such a crucial role in assessing their needs and finding the right solution for them.
And with every story we hear, read, or listen, our mind makes cognitive and emotional connections that shape our perspective of the world, about others and ourselves, it changes the narratives we have about others and in doing so we help them reclaim their stories.
Listening to others is an art, a path to other people’s heart, an effort requiring patience, sometimes a battle with yourself, and a skill you need to learn in order to evolve as a person and unleash your potential.
We just have to be brave enough to turn, and face one another. Making the choice to invest in each other, by both telling our stories, and listening to each others’ stories.
And as we engage in the mutual sharing of stories, we will open the spaces for new and promising and beautiful stories to be written.
And if we do so, then the world would be a better place if people listened to each other more. Communication would be real, everyone would say what they want and won’t keep it in their head, conflicts will lessen and people will refind their compassion.
The stories you tell shape your perception of the world, and your perception of the world shapes the stories you tell.