Before we even learned to read or write, humanity loved telling stories.
We wanted to be together with our loved ones, gathered around a fire, spinning fantastical tales. We wanted to connect, to teach and understand one another.
As we drifted to the far corners of the planet and began new cultures, our love – our need – for storytelling remained as a constant for humanity.
“I’ve always found it so interesting to compare and see how different cultures tell stories – there’s a lot that makes us different from each other, but probably even more things that show our similarities,” says Kendra Bullock, an anthropology graduate from the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I even had the privilege to experience it when I studied in the Middle East, then South Asia… But really, no matter where you look, one element stays the same: a sense of identity,” she adds.
Storytelling “creates social cohesion and cultural identity, but can also impact an individual’s sense of identity,” according to Bullock. “Stories sort of establish ‘who’ they are as a culture and help individuals to understand their own identities in this context.
“It’s one fundamental part of human existence, really… Margaret Atwood was right: Storytelling is built in the human plan. We come with it,” Bullock continues.
Sharing stories within a community builds important relationships and promotes sympathy and understanding. When people hear someone’s genuine life story, they are more easily able to sympathize and even connect with others.
Sympathy and willingness to listen is key to creating an inclusive community. This includes multicultural communities and individuals.
Margaret Atwood was right: Storytelling is built in the human plan. We come with it.Kendra Bullock, UCLA
From an outsider’s perspective, another culture might seem so alien that there’s no chance for connection; they’re just so “different,” maybe they have completely different values, etc. While every culture is unique, Bullock is right: we share a lot more similarities. We just have to tell our stories.
The power of media
Just imagine: you’re a young immigrant new to the United States. You came with your family so your parents could find work. You’re excited, but also pretty scared.
This is a strange and possibly hostile new world – you speak English, but not as your first language. The family speaks your native tongue at home. You’re worried that you’ll stick out, but you also don’t want to slip through the cracks. Mom and Dad are worried, too; they try to keep the balance of remembering their family culture and adjusting to a new one.
Meanwhile, media is your guide to this new culture. It’s mostly pretty homogenized with few other cultural representations. There seems to be no significant presence of your own culture, which is disheartening. You want to adjust to your new setting, but don’t want to give up your cultural identity. Yet, that seems to be expected.
Thankfully, you come across something that offers you solidarity: a young woman from your home country telling her story. She’s dressed how you might be at home – a kind of mix between your new and traditional fashion. She looks completely comfortable in her own skin.
You can relate to her struggles and cheer for her triumphs; you don’t feel quite so alien anymore. At the end, she even mentions a social media group she’s in that brings people like you two together as a community. There, you hear more people’s stories and eventually share your own.
That one single story might have changed the course of your life, and for the better. Things might not always be perfect, but you’re at peace with yourself and don’t feel alone.
As more of these stories appear in media, people may become more accepting of different cultures. You probably don’t expect a utopia anytime soon, but you know that good stories are the stepping stones to get us there.