Thoughts on Sharing our Stories

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“Perhaps the greatest danger of our global community is that the person in LA thinks he knows Cambodia because he’s seen The Killing Fields on-screen, and the newcomer from Cambodia thinks he knows LA because he’s seen City of Angels on video.”
― Pico Iyer

At a dinner party years ago, our host, a man from England, was waxing wise about China. His wife – a no nonsense French woman looked at him at one point, shook her head and said “Nigel, who made you the expert on China?” Nigel did not miss a second to respond “I read Tai-Pan.” He was referring to the book by noted author James Clavell.

We all laughed, but the reality is more serious. The person who has spent ten days on a cruise ship and has visited nine ports in those ten days is hardly an expert on every country where they have stopped. And yet, they sometimes claim to be. The person who has gone on a short term mission or volunteer trip needs to be really careful of the quick judgments that they make of the country they visit and the people in that country.

I’m as guilty as anyone. It’s really easy to make broad assessments of places and people based on a limited view and a single story. My entire life has been a learning process of how to communicate what I have experienced, and be fair and wise within that communication.

At the same time, when we travel and when we live in places, we do experience the world through a different lens, and we do want to communicate that. That is not wrong. It’s not wrong of us to want to share our stories. Perhaps what this is about is not our stories, but the way we share our stories.

This summer, we will once again see many from western countries take trips to other parts of the world. These trips have different names. Sometimes they are called “Short term missions.” Other times they are called “Vision Trips.” Still others call them “Voluntourism.”

I’m not here to say these are wrong. I think we have to be really careful about telling people they can’t go to other parts of the world. My husband started a semester abroad program in Egypt years ago that is still going strong. It has moved from Egypt to Bethlehem to Jordan, but it still exists. Everyone of the students who went on that program would say it was life changing. And I believe them. I watched these students grow and change during their three months in the Middle East.

I do think there are some ways to do these trips that are better than others. Presenting them as trips where a rich, white Westerner is going to help a poor, brown person is not healthy or wise. But I think there are ways to do these trips well and with humility.

No matter how and where these trips take place, people who go on them will come back with stories. And that’s what I want to talk about. Sharing our stories.

What if we began our stories by recognizing our limitations? By saying “This is what I saw and experienced. This could be quite different from what others have experienced.” or “I only know what I know, I only saw what I saw, but that is what I would like to communicate to you today.”

It’s not fair to tell people they aren’t allowed to tell stories because they only went someplace for a ten-day trip. That ten-day trip had a deep impact on how they view the world, and the decisions that they will make in the future. Neither is it fair to demand that someone spend a lifetime in a place before they are allowed to make an assessment, or write a view point. But it is fair to ask people to have humility when they tell their stories. It is fair to ask people not to speak from an authoritative place. 

So if you are traveling this summer to volunteer or visit, here are a couple of guidelines for sharing your story.

  1. At the beginning, verbalize your limitations. This can be done in several different ways. “Thank you for inviting me to share my story. I want to say at the beginning, that this is my story. Others could have completely different experiences. In no way do I mean to stereotype, and if I fall into that, please forgive me. I may share general information, but I will let you know that it is general.” or “I’m honored to be asked to share what I did this summer. As I share, please know that I saw only a small window of what goes on every day. I want to be faithful in sharing what I saw, but honest in what I don’t know.”
  2. In all things, cultural humility. We don’t know everything about our own culture, let alone someone elses. It is critically important to have an attitude of cultural humility as we go, and as we come back. Cultural humility always puts us in a posture of learning.
  3. Be careful of hyperbole. Anyone who knows me and my husband, know that we love a good story. And some stories are made to be embellished. But we don’t embellish at the expense of others. The stories we embellish are about us.
  4. Watch your use of the word “all.” When we begin to use the words “All refugees do such and such…” or “All South Africans believe this …” or “All Iraqis….” then we are on dangerous ground. We can say many (if it’s true). I can say “Many Americans have an individualistic world view.” That statement is true. But changing the “many” to “all” doesn’t give any room for deviation.
  5. Remember, no one is a single story. I have said this so many times in this space that readers are probably tired. But I won’t stop. No one is a single story. Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story” should be required viewing. With 10 million views and counting, many people have already seen it. “The problem with stereotypes,” she says “is not that they are incorrect, but that they are incomplete. No one is a single story.” 
  6. Share what you learned about yourself. The more willing you are to be honest and real, the more your story will resonate. Be willing to share mistakes you made and how you learned from them. Be honest about your pride, your self-consciousness, and your tendency to be egocentric. Give a story about how those things were challenged. The more vulnerable you are willing to be, the more others will see themselves in your story and learn.

Stories are important. When we stop listening and telling stories, we will stop being human. We walk in our stories every day and sharing them with others is important. If we share them well, everyone benefits.

What would you add that would help us tell our stories with integrity and honesty?