Do you have a single story? That one story, that one thing about you that really defines who you are, the story that people will construct about you without actually getting to know you? It’s their shorthand for ‘you’. Ted speaker and novelist Chimamanda Adichie shares with her Ted audience her experiences of being defined by a single story and why the single story can be a dangerous thing.
What is the single story?
The single story is the shorthand that we default to when we have limited information about a person or situation. We might have a snippet of information such as a person’s birthplace and then we subconsciously raid our internal reference bank and construct a story about a person based solely on our preconceived ideas. The danger in this of-course is that so often we construct the wrong story and this ends up breeding resentment, conflicts and on a global scales even wars.
Having only read books set in foreign land, Chimamanda single story about being an author was that they must have foreign characters. It was not until she discovered books by African authors that she realised that books contained characters that she could relate to actually existed.
Years later when Chimamanda was studying in an American college one of her professors told her that her novel was not “authentically African” as the characters were much like him educated and middle-class. Her professor thought that her African characters should be starving and struggling.
I’m guessing that her professor didn’t mean any malice by his remark, he just had a single story about what life was like in Africa. Many people that Chimamanda met in America had the same similar single story. Chimamanda’s roommate in America felt sorry for her before even meeting her, as her single story about Africa was one filled with imagery of poverty.
Getting to know the real story
Using our reference bank to construct stories about a person doesn’t make us a bad person, it makes us human. We are storytellers and just as Andrew Stanton mentioned in his Ted talk The clues to a great story we are at our core problem-solvers. We like to solve puzzlea, so in the absence of information we draw on what we know and fill in the blanks.
I think that we need to be open to new stories and not take everything we see at face value. Interestingly mid-way through writing this post I got called away to do a quick errand at the local shops. A young child, maybe seven, was having a grand-scale tantrum. Her father pacified her by buying her a small toy. I heard some shoppers muttering to themselves that the father was setting the wrong example and ‘raising a brat.’
Later on, after the child had settled I heard the father tell his wife that he hated hearing her crying like that as it reminds him of when she was in hospital. How’s that for shifting the whole perspective. Granted he probably shouldn’t buy her new toys mid-tantrum as his wife scolded him for doing, but hearing his whole story gave the story a whole new meaning.
Maybe this father didn’t buy a toy for his daughter to bribe her out of her tantrum, maybe it was an emotional response to the memories of having a sick daughter in hospital.
Everyone we meet is a blank page to us. We can’t impose our version of their story onto them, as we shouldn’t want to. We should allow ourselves the honour to be able to hear and share each other’s stories.
What’s your story? I would love to hear it in the comments below.