People’s stories are interesting. The received wisdom is that if you wish to change a politician’s mind, tell her or him a story. In fact, it seems that we’re hardwired to enjoy stories. That’s why it’s so unfortunate that we seldom take the time to listen to other people’s stories. We’re too busy. For an organization to which I belong, I recently asked that five minutes of each agenda be set aside so that one member could tell her or his story at each meeting. That way it’s possible to get to know who it is you’re working with, without the tired “one thing nobody knows about you” trope. The idea was adopted and it seems a worthwhile use of agenda time. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard someone’s account and found myself anything less than fascinated.
When we reflect back over our lives, we do it in narrative format. We tell ourselves a story about our life. And these stories intersect with other people’s stories. Some of those people may be famous or wealthy or ordinary, but each is unique. Considering that there are billions of us on this planet, that’s a lot of tales. There’s not so much a lesson to be learned from this than there is a simple reminder—it is worthwhile to listen to others. I’ve run into a few people who are household names in my time. Some of them are routinely criticized in the media, by people who never met them. Who don’t know them. Who don’t know their stories.
Much of our time at “work” is really time trying to earn money for a company. It may involve dealing with other people, but not closely enough to really know their story. I think of this every time an author and I could engage in a conversation about our experience of the academic life only to have to keep the discussion to “the business at hand.” The human element, it seems, is unimportant. I would read other people’s stories all day, if I could. We crave a narrative, but getting one’s not a paying position. How have we come to this place where we have time for only disconnected memes and not the stories behind them? Bookstore owners know a perennial selling genre is the biography. We’ll pay to know a famous person’s story. The fact is each of our lives is also a tale worth telling. We would all benefit from listening to each other’s experiences. Tell your story, I’m listening.