Everyone Has a Story

Everyone has a story

It came up again this weekend: the ‘where are you from?’ conversation. The conversation starter that has third culture kid’s squirming and sweating, eager to leave the room and the conversation.

A while back Cecily Thew over at Cecily.Mostly talked about laughing at a statement in the book To Sell is Human by Daniel H. Pink. He writes this:

“I often ask people ‘What do you do?’ But I’ve found that a few folks squirm at this because they don’t like their jobs or they believe that others might pass judgement. This question [where are you from] is friendlier and more attuned… it opens things up rather than shuts them down… it always triggers an interesting conversation.” 

To which Cecily responded in writing “Hahahahaha.”

As well she should, for if you want a conversation stopper and confuser for third culture kids, just ask them “where are you from?” No matter how sweetly and kindly you ask the question, it throws the TCK or CCK (cross cultural kid) into a confused jumble of words.

Someone astutely commented that it should be “What is your story?” and the more I think about that, the more I like it. The question “What is your story?” is not just for those who are displaced and exiled, but for everybody. It opens up the window to real conversation, to important information, to fostering understanding.

When we care enough to ask someone what their story is, we are having an ‘I-Thou” conversation. In his classic book I and Thou, the author Martin Buber speaks of the “I-thou” as a dialogue rather than a monologue; a dialogue of equality and empathy, where there is genuine interest for the other and their story.

While not everyone has a job and not everyone has a home, everyone has a story. Their story is uniquely theirs and cannot be taken from them. Stories define us, they tell the listener how our experiences made us who we are today. Telling a story invites questions, and questions invite more of the story.

So today – take a chance, and voice the question “What is your story?” to someone who you don’t know. Then sit back and watch what happens. You may be astounded by the response.

7 thoughts on “Everyone Has a Story

  1. Great conversation starter Marilyn… Wish we could be sitting across a table with coffee, or chai… I like “What is your story” but find that it is often too big a question for the small-talk space necessary to build US friendships. Even bigger is Trotters41 ‘who are you’…trying that in different ‘tones’ is an interesting experiment…could come off well, like a glad, open door…but also not, I think, for people who value privacy or hear it a certain way or don’t know where to start! – As a trained elementary teacher I bend towards ‘open and building’ questions, in other words, creating something like a mini-trust scaffold- like, at a conference, “What brought you here?… Where were you before this? … what was that like? … and the phrase I really like is, ‘Tell me more!’ (sometimes with a specific qualifier like, …this job you love… or, …your family… depending on what they said at first.) – In essence, I suppose it is like ‘Tell me your story’ but in smaller steps. I think that is a great place for coaching and mentoring cross culturally, bc. what we ask and don’t ask in a new situation is probably based on cultural mores and values…
    What do you think? Tell me more! :)

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  2. My husband and I love to ask couples how they met. We’ve heard some fascinating stories, and of course, we love to tell ours! I love this post, Marilyn. I’m always trying to find new conversation starters that will go deeper, and I like the idea of asking, “What is your story?” Or perhaps for internationals, “What brought you to the USA rather than some other country?”

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  3. Inspiring article, as always : )

    Actually, I would not dare asking a new person at my table or at a social occasion to share their life story. So I find it encouraging you have very positive experience with it : )

    I love the question “What brought you here?” this is a bit vague, because the here is already open to interpretation, and that is what I like about it.

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  4. Great post, Marilyn, and great point about the whole “Where are you from” (or the “What do you do?”) question that makes folks like us squirm so. We have had a little tradition in our household to get around this: when we have guests for the first time over for dinner, we ask them to “tell us your life story.” And we let them go on for as long as it takes, letting them know we’ll occasionally break in with questions for clarification or more info (like when they jump from 5th Grade to college, or to be married without telling us the love story of how that happened). Hearing peoples’ stories takes us much deeper with them and we really get to know people that way so much better.

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  5. I laughed about Cecily’s responses, because I too, hate the “what do you do?” Questions. What do I do?? What do I not do?? Then again, what do I do that’s “real” and bullet-point-able? It’s so complicated and I hate explaining it. “Who are you?” is much friendlier to me. Once I was in a conversation with a brand new person, a very career oriented person, and we started get-to-know-you questions. I started answering with who I am, my history, my family, that seems to define me much more easily than what I do — as a TCK I still find deep roots in my own mobile story and family history. Then the person said, “Not who your family is, what you DO.” I felt small and little, because really, why do I want to explain to a career person my stay-at-home-mom life or why my daily chores are not nearly as exciting as those of my husband sitting next to me? I can own my mobile history much more easily. I see now I was really answering the question, “What’s your story?”

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  6. This is a fantastic thought. As a TCK myself I’ve found loopholes and generic answers for the “where are you from” question that average people tend to ask. “What is your story” is so much more inclusive, especially if the asker genuinely means it. Those are moments I adore, when someone asks and truly wants to listen. I like to return the favour, too. :)

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  7. Oh I love this so much! I’ve had conversations about this topic so many times. It is so limiting to be asked “what do you do?” And more times than I can count I’ve seen my TCK husband and friends squirm when asked, “where are you from?” “What’s your story ?”–what a fantastic solution!

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