I consider myself a mediocre storyteller. I'm not the kind of person who regularly takes the stage at a family gathering or a party to unravel a story. Yet on a family vacation recently, I had the chance to tell the entire story of the one time in my life where I truly thought I was going to die. I sat in a beautiful mountain house in Sparta, NC, telling my parents the story which started in Lima, Peru and ends with my friends and I attempting to drive over a landslide in the Andes mountains. I explained to my mom my constant thought was "I don't want to die. Mom is going to lose it if I die in Peru." This was in February 2008.
My parents had heard parts of this story, but this was the first time my parents had heard the entire story, which took me only about 10 minutes to tell. What was different about this day was this trip to a mountain house was my idea (which had no cable or cell phone service), so I had to make sure my parents had a good time. My story lightened the mood and it began a weekend of multiple discussions and stories. I believe that times like these help me to understand myself and my parents better. There are multiple causes for lack of depth or "undeveloped" relationships. Yet I believe the habit of telling personal stories is one way to create depth of friendship among people.
People need to learn how to tell their own stories. We might hesitate to tell our own stories because must complete with the narratives of TV characters, the personal lives of celebrities and superstar athletes attempting to win championships. Your own personal story is in competition with YouTube videos, Instagram accounts and Netflix. Unfortunately if your story is boring, sad or fragmented, you better go practice it in your room before you attempt to compete with the popular American culture in the 21st century.
But the reality is------when we are more interested in the stories of popular American culture than our co-workers, old friends, new friends and family, our relationships can plateau and perhaps regress. Friendship happens when people share their stories. When we tell a 4 minute story to our friend on lunch break, our co-workers understand our personality and individual history better. If we wonder why we do not have deeper friendships with people at work, it might be better to stop watching Youtube videos by ourselves our office and eat lunch with a group of people. Not to say that popular American culture has no good stories to tell. It is just that we could be sacrificing potential friendships for the sake watching the latest treading internet video.
The second threat to personal stories is the need for people to have space to talk about their own lives. When I have a good story to tell, it is fun to take the stage. But if there is no one listening, I am going to stop talking. For someone to develop as a storyteller there needs enough quiet space for them to actually have time to go into the details of the story. There needs to be people who know how to listen to a story. If people are interrupting what you are saying or multitasking often times it's not very fun to continue speaking. I was able to tell my Peru story because there was no TV or computer at the mountain house in Sparta to distract us. For people to feel comfortable to share stories, distraction must be at a minimum.
A third threat to personal stories is the belief that all stories must be daring, deadly or funny. A story is simply something that happened to you in a particular time and place. When I have my students write a personal narrative in my ENG 111 class, they often interpret it as "tell stories about illegal, crazy or impressive things you've done that will shock the class." This category qualifies as story. But often times these turn out as exaggerated attempts at impressing others. They come across as pretentious and embarrassing because the person wants us to think they are spontaneous and bold. In fact my story about driving through the Andes mountains in Peru could fit into this category depending on my motive and the audience. But my motive was simply to entertain my parents. Stories of frustration, nostalgia, disappointment, loss and confusion are as equally as valuable as an attempt at entertaining our friends. An authentic sad story is less awkward than exaggerated "crazy" story meant to impress someone.
Finally, storytelling can be mistakenly seen as a self-centered practice. As I've said above, I think with the right motives it can make people understand one another better. If you have the right motives in storytelling, you can use it as a tool to help others understand you. About 10 years ago my friend Bobby Lane told me "You know Nate, when I met someone new I try to tell one or two stories so that person knows something about me. I often do this rather than waiting on them to talk, so they feel more comfortable knowing who I am." I have used this technique over the years and it is generally true. Asking new people questions works as a way to know others, but also telling my stories helps to make myself less a stranger. Bobby is not only one of the best storytellers I know, he is also very transparent and approachable. I believe part of this is because he makes storytelling a habit in his life. Sometimes we need to be the one who share the first story.
If you are terrified of the silence that might occur on your family vacation this summer in the car, consider sharing your own personal stories. Do not waste the opportunity to share small stories. Your family will be entertained but more importantly-----they might understand you better.