Why you should care
Because there’s something fascinating at play in the difference between the way the West and East treat storytelling.
Qi Wang is a professor of psychology and human development at Cornell University, and is the author of The Autobiographical Self in Time and Culture.
We Americans are obsessed with telling our life stories. And it’s not just politicians and celebrities (did you know that former President Jimmy Carter wrote eight memoirs?). Stories aren’t just for the famous; there are memoirs written by ordinary people and those written for dogs and cats. And for the fame-hungry, there is reality television, where average people can turn into instant celebrities by revealing their personal dramas, including the ugliest and most intimate, to a mass audience. We have macroblogging, microblogging, instant messaging, status updates, Snapchat “stories” and more.
But the phenomenon isn’t simply the product of our technological world. Sharing personal stories is an essential ingredient in everyday conversations: We are eager to tell our stories and are fascinated by those of others. Even at preschool, “sharing time” is a common Monday-morning activity where the youngsters sit in a circle and take turns telling a story about something they did over the weekend.
So what is this obsession about? Why isn’t having an experience enough that we also have to talk about it? Psychologists have found that personal storytelling helps us shape our “selves.” In the process of sharing our stories, we are telling others and ourselves how our unique experiences make us who we are. Our stories, capturing intimate details and our innermost thoughts and feelings, can best separate ourselves from other selves. These other “me’s” serve as a looking glass against which the storyteller establishes him- or herself as a separate, distinct individual.
In America, a culture founded on the pursuit of happiness, we are also motivated to tell our stories for therapeutic purposes.
Interestingly, this obsession is not necessarily shared by people from other cultures. In many Asian countries, for example, where talking about and drawing attention to oneself can be seen as socially inappropriate, people are often reluctant to share their life stories and do not encourage others to do so. Asian politicians and celebrities also shy away from writing about their lives, in contrast to their tell-all American peers. Even a man as great as Mahatma Gandhi had to wrestle with the idea of writing his autobiography, since producing a self-focused narrative contradicted the values of modesty.
When people do share their stories, whether in memoirs or casual conversation or psychological studies, they tend to focus more on external facts than personal details. The popular Chinese television journalist Rui Chenggang (芮成钢), writing in his memoir about receiving a prestigious award at the World Economic Forum, says in just one sentence: “I attended the World Economic Forum the first time in 2001, where Professor Schwab awarded me the title of ‘2001 Global Leader for Tomorrow.’” Asians believe that a person is largely defined by his or her social status and relationships, leaving little reason to broadcast detailed and revealing personal stories to establish a unique self.
Ironically, the more unique we Americans strive to be, the greater our need to feel connected with others. In our culture of individuality, relationships are highly mobile and voluntary and can be easily formed or dissolved — so much so that individuals must actively maintain their relationships. Sharing personal stories brings us closer through the exchange of thoughts, feelings and desires. It connects us like many different nodes, holding our family, community and society together. This motivation to tell personal stories as a way of fostering relationships is not nearly as strong among Asians, for whom social relations are generally unconditional, obligatory and stable, and therefore require little maintenance. To intentionally recount one’s past for the purpose of making social connections could be seen as unnecessary or even improper.
Parents in the U.S. and Asia differ in how they share memories with their young children. American parents regard parent-child bonding as the No.1 priority of personal storytelling: They encourage children to share their stories, pay great attention to and are sympathetic with children’s thoughts and feelings, and create opportunities to re-experience the past with children. Asian parents, by contrast, engage their children in telling personal stories less frequently and view such activities as less formative and important than Americans parents. When they do talk about a child’s experiences, they are not particularly concerned with parent-child bonding but tend to focus on disciplining the child.
In America, a culture founded on the pursuit of happiness, we are also motivated to tell our stories for therapeutic purposes. We talk about our success stories with others, especially those who will cheer us on, so that we can capitalize on our positive feelings about ourselves. We share our failures, frustrations and traumas with others to seek sympathy, advice, and social support, in the hope that we will feel better.
In Waiting for Godot, Estragon hears many voices talking about their lives. Vladimir comments, “To have lived is not enough for them,” and Estragon agrees, “They have to talk about it.” Americans, more than other cultures, seem to embrace that need to talk about it. And whether our appetite for personal storytelling is about validating an experience, establishing an identity or soothing psychic pain, it would appear that the drive to share our stories is picking up speed.
This OZY encore was originally published Oct. 21, 2014.