The danger of a single story

 

Photo Credit: redfoxinict Flickr via Compfight cc

As a young Nigerian student who had travelled to the US to study, Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie came face to face with something we all encounter many times throughout our lives – a single story. Let me explain.

 

Chimamanda arrived to the US and met her new roommate, a roommate who was shocked and surprised to find Chimamanda so different than what she had expected. She’d been surprised to not only find out that her new roommate spoke English (not knowing that English is an official language in Nigeria) but that her ‘tribal’ music included Mariah Carey.

 

Chimamanada’s roommate had fallen victim to a single story. A single story is a story that we create about people and things, before having learned anything about them.

 

A single story is one that accepts people at face value.

A single story is one that judges a book by its cover.

A single story is seductive because it’s easy & quick.

 

Why single stories are dangerous

But they’re dangerous.

Single stories make assumptions. A lot of assumptions – and assumptions can be problematic and get you stuck.

They draw well defined borders around who’s included & who’s not.

Single stories also leave out. A lot.

They leave out alternative voices. Different opinions. Different ways & walks of life.

In the end they hurt us as well (not just the person we’re writing a story about in our heads) because excluding people because of their so called story, has a high price.

 

Why should we seek out layered, nuanced stories of depth?

Years ago I was working in a very remote, very tiny, very rural, very conservative village in the Philippines. When I referenced my husband, I used the word ‘partner.’

(Insert huff of indignation here, as it’s always bugged me that there are up to 3 ways to address a woman – Ms., Miss & Mrs. – & they all connote her marital status, while at the same time there’s only 1 for men.)

After the workshop a tiny Filipino woman approached me & said ‘I love it when straight people use the word partner, it’s such a sign of inclusion.’

I confess I was surprised. I didn’t expect to be approached by a gay woman in the conservative area I was in.

My single story got expanded. Without realizing it, I’d created a single story about the people and community that I was visiting, one that meant that I wasn’t seeing clearly but rather was shrouded in assumptions.

When this woman came and talked to me, I realized how much deeper I needed to go to truly get all the value there was to be had out of my visit. I needed to be ready to hear a multitude of stories.

 

There’s magic in expanded stories

It’s only when people feel welcome & heard that they’ll participate. And when everyone’s making a contribution, multiple voices are heard & magic happens.

 

When I’m teaching in new countries I’ve never visited before, I’ve learned to:
• listen hard,
• question my assumptions
• use humour strategically &
• keep an unfettered mind..

 

It helps me make sure that I fully embrace the stories around me & makes people feel comfortable knowing that I truly care about them and am ready and open to engage.

It’s a kind of magic.

That magic includes an increase in creativity & innovation, discovering multiple ways to resolve conflict &tackle tough issues..

‘When we reject the single story, we regain a paradise,’ says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie, in her TED talk.

 

Embracing expanded stories for International Day of Families

As the International Day of Families has just happened (May 15th) let’s take her advice & include wonderfully diverse & complex stories in your work & your personal life, that embrace:

 

– families that are far-flung global nomads
– families whose only travel is done seated in a comfy armchair watching TV
– families that are fractured
– families that are messy, dysfunctional
– families that are far from the ‘norm’ of mom, dad & 2.5 kids
– families with mental health issues
– families that are struggling with poverty
– families that are broken
– families that are on the mend
– families with alcohol & drug issues
– families who have members in prison
– families who aren’t biologically related
– families who are colourful – whether it be via the rainbow, skin colour, or personalities
– families that fit inside the box & families who are waaaaaayyyy outside the box

 

Because after all, as Pico Iyer says, home is more about soul than soil.

This week in the lunchroom, share a story about your life with your colleagues you’ve never shared before and invite them to do the same. The more we are ready to share & take in our various stories, the more we are open to deeper connections, and the more we understand each other, the happier/calmer/more creative/ more connected we feel.

 

Your turn. Take action

– Think of a time you unwittingly wrote a single story in your head about someone. How did you realize it needed some expansion?

– Expanding a single story means uncovering assumptions you’re making. Check out this post to help you with that. 

– If the idea of expanded a single story resonates with you, I invite you to share this post with a colleague or friend, &/or sign up for my blog.

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