One-Dimensional Stories

No one is a Single Story

The problem with stereotypes is not that they are not true, but that they are incomplete.*

I was introducing myself at a party when the woman I was speaking with interrupted me and said “Oh, I know you. You’re that woman who….” She went on to describe one event that she had heard about from one of my acquaintances — someone who I wouldn’t have even described as a friend.

I was stunned. 

This woman thought she knew me. The conversation was closed. She went on to greet other people who were beside me but our conversation was over. She knew what she wanted to know and that was the end.

A single story robs people of dignity.

I felt robbed — robbed of identity, robbed of meaning.  In the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I felt robbed of dignity.

As angry as I was over that interaction, the unfairness of the interruption, the gross simplification of who I was based on one event, the fact that she didn’t know anything, really, about me — I realized on analysis that I have done the same.

I have acted as though I knew someone purely on hearsay. I have made assumptions based on stereotypes. I have dismissed based on unverified stories.

We do it all the time, don’t we? Look at nursing homes in the west, full of the elderly. The residents are reduced to a single time of their lives — old age. Reduced to wrinkled, toothless, scattered, and forgetful. We forget that their lives are rich with memory and meaning. That they were once teenagers with rebellion on their hearts and stars in their eyes. Twenty year olds who could change the world with a single action. Thirty year olds struggling under the weight of toddlers or singleness. Forty year olds learning that life doesn’t last forever. Fifty year olds with the first quiver and fear of old age. Sixty year olds where they looked in the mirror and, for the first time, didn’t recognize themselves. Seventy year olds facing a future without a spouse.

We see one dimension. A woman in a bleak room with clouded eyesight and a shared bathroom.

There is a problem with one-dimensional stories.

It’s a problem with the old, it’s a problem with the young, it’s a problem in the city, it’s a problem with the homeless.

And it’s also a problem with mission trips and short-term stints overseas, including blogging trips, and I’ll say it loud and clear – it’s a problem with North American journalists in Sochi. The one-dimensional stories consolidated into 140 characters and labeled #SochiProblems display a troubling ethnocentrism, failing to give valid critique and thoughtful response to a city and an entire country. One article states that Russians are calling this “”zloradstvo,” or “malicious glee.” All of Russia is reduced to a single story called #SochiProblems.

“As faves and retweets on @SochiProblems explode, it’s clear that the meme is based on cultural misunderstandings borne out of sheltered ignorance: The posts reflect actual issues that directly impact the quality of life of Russia’s 143 million people.”* 

It’s not the full picture. It’s a one-dimensional story. And one-dimensional stories are problematic.

I can picture these journalists cramming notes into small, moleskin journals, crafting their words – not to give honest and credible story and critique, but to gain a following, to see how many will pass retweet their one-dimensional views.

When we are visitors we must above all be honest. We must be clear that we are rookies in our understanding, babies in our assessments. Recently I read an interview with Adam Klein on a book he edited called The Gifts of the State.  It is a selection of stories penned by Afghan writers. At one point, in talking about the disconnect between the East and West, specifically Afghanistan and the west he says this:

“It was a dusty night in Kabul. I had lived in Muslim countries for 8 years. I saw a man on his bicycle with a scarf wrapped around his face. My first thought was “if this was the cover of Time magazine, I would think ‘terrorist'”; in fact, it was a sand storm.”

A single story says terrorist, a more complex look at circumstances shows a far more realistic picture.

So as I ponder this and shake my head over my own telling of stories and the often one-dimensional view I give to them, I think about the master of story telling, Jesus.

Because that’s what I love so much about Jesus – he saw people fully, he saw their outside actions, and he knew their inside thoughts. He, the ultimate story-teller told three-dimensional stories so that those who had ears to hear would hear.

And I pray that I will learn to be more like this Master Story-Teller, better understanding the complexity of the human experience, the human heart, telling stories with humility of heart and pen.

What about you? Have you been robbed of dignity because someone reduced your story to a single event? Have you done this to others? How do we learn to hear and tell stories honoring the complexity of the human experience? 

*from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her TED Talk The Danger of a Single Story

Blogger’s note: The Onion did a great job a couple of weeks ago writing an article called “6-Day Visit to Rural Africa Completely Changes Woman’s Facebook Profile Pictures” —  Like most satire it exposes an unfortunate truth.


For a critical look at #SochiProblems see the article “#SochiProblems is More of an Embarrassment for America than it is for Russia.”

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16 thoughts on “One-Dimensional Stories

  1. Oh my goodness, this is so helpful. One picture from the Sochi reporters caught my eye, where they pictured a sign that asked people to dispose of toilet paper in a trash can rather than flush it. It bothered me that they were making this into a big deal – isn’t the Olympics an international event? And isn’t this daily life for much of the world? But then I moved on. Thanks for bringing more clarity to my discomfort.


    1. That really bothered me as well! I’ve been to so many countries where that is the case. North Americans don’t realize that all sewage systems cannot handle the abundance of paper we put in them! Also there are many countries that think using toilet paper is disgusting and that we should all be using water…just sayin’! All of the #sochiproblem stuff had bothered me from the beginning but I couldn’t put my finger on it until recently. So consider yourself with company in your discomfort :)


  2. Our local city newspaper in their obituaries posts youthful pictures of people who died at a ripe old age, a good reminder that no matter how old and how this person died, they lived an active life with notable accomplishments. We are spending a month out of the cold north in Florida staying in a retirement home filled with missionaries. We have been eating our noon meal in the dining room of their assisted living section and meeting many of the residents. They are all old, several in their 90s and each one has such fascinating stories. Among the guests this month are Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars Gren, with 2 caregivers for Elisabeth who has dementia.
    Thanks, Marilyn. Your post is a good reminder of how vital it is to be aware and sensitive to the people around us. We who are older are probably more guilty of making wrong assumptions about the young, and more understanding of our peers.


    1. Sometimes I think the ‘older’ are less guilty of making assumptions than those of us who are ‘middle-aged’!! Or at least with some people. My hope is that as I age I will see more and more the importance of ‘process’ to God. He’s less interested in ‘product’ than ‘process’ if that makes sense. I never thought about that with obituaries. Cliff and I were talking last night about how many stories there must be that go around your dinner tables at the place in Florida. You’ve all had such interesting lives!


  3. So glad you posted this…the propaganda of the Olympic commentators are driving me BANANAS! And once again, we’re on the same page – I have a similar post on stereotypes & single stories & the damage they cause scheduled to post soon :) Glad to hear another voice on the same page!


    1. Can’t wait to read your post and will link it up. Nice to be on the same page – although my guess is that there are times when our minds go a little nuts with all the thoughts rumbling around them, only a fraction of which go on to paper :) And I totally agree about the Olympic stuff..


      1. ha! for sure :) my college roommate used to ask me if I really “thought of these things all by myself” when I’d pontificate as we fell asleep every night. She was really good for me :)


  4. My neighbour’s mother/mother in law is in a residential home where outside each door there is a large photo of the occupant when he/she was much younger and full of health and vigour: good reminder for staff and visitors.


    1. I had heard that places were beginning to do this – and not only with a picture, but with a short timeline/history of the person’s life. So good and so important. I’ve yet to see it here but it’s been a bit since I’ve been to a residential home.


  5. Well, many people are exactly like you describe. But the good news is that such a person usually isn’t worth spending much energy on and that there are others around who are. As we can only change ourselves and not others, we can only lead by example and not fall into the trap that you describe so well. Thanks! Jenny


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