The Power of Stories

Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves.

An African Like Me?

How can hearing an alternative story change how we perceive?

In her humourous and thought provoking TED talk, writer Chimamanda Adichie talks about the danger of what she calls 'a single story'; if we only hear one story of a person, a place, or a thing do we really know anything about it?  We are inundated with a single story of Africa here in North America.  We have grown up being told that we had to finish our dinners because of the 'starving children in Africa'; we've even seen them on TV with a fly crawling slowly across their face.  Growing up I believed that I had nothing in common with someone from Africa.  They spoke with weird clicks, they were either at war; living in abject poverty, or getting chased by lions.  These were the stories of Africa that I was told.  There was some amazing animals and scenery, but when it came to the people there was nothing that compared to the middle class Canadian life that I was living.  There was no way that there could ever be an African that was just like me. TV, movies and the media told me this story over and over again.

What I wasn't shown was families like Chimamanda Adichie's.  A middle class family that, aside from me being Canadian and her being Nigerian, isn't very different from the one that I grew up in.  She was even told; "Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing" (Fide was the household help...and came from the more 'stereotypical' African household).  Chimamanda and I even shared the same initial shock when visiting a traditional village for the first time; "I was startled.  It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something.  All I had heard about them is how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor."

It is that final sentence that really struck me "All I had heard about them is how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor".  It was that realization that was so hard to come to grips with while I was living in South Africa.  In that moment I understood that I had a lot to learn; and that the people of the village were going to be my teachers as much as I was theirs.  The 'single story' as Chimamanda puts it doesn't seem to benefit anyone.  I spent much of my time explaining to the children in the village that everyone in the US doesn't live in a mansion with a swimming pool full of money.  The single story goes both ways, and the misunderstandings that can come from the single story can range from the humorous...to the deadly. 

We are living in a drastically different world than that of generations past.  Technology has made it possible to be in constant communication with others, no matter where they are in the world.  The Disney idiom of "It's a Small World" is coming true in ways that Mickey himself could not have imagined.  Only 10% of the countries in the world are racially or ethnically homogeneous (Harris, Moran, & Moran, 2004).  Our communities, streets and institutions have become the equivalent of the United Nations.  Those people who are unwilling or unable to adapt to a multicultural environment will be left behind, while the rest of the world moves on to bigger and better things. 

The ability to not only interact and tolerate with people of different cultures, but to fully integrate and work together for a more positive future is known as intercultural competence (Sodowsky & Lai, 1997).  Traditionally this concept has been looked at through the lens of immigrants integrating into a dominant culture.  But as we become a true multicultural society, the idea of intercultural competence takes on a greater role.  Michael Moodian (2009) argues that in the 21st century, success in leadership will not be possible without intercultural competence.  There is a greater emphasis today on valuing differences and managing diversity, as opposed to a 'tolerance' for them.  Tolerance is no longer enough anymore; it is time that we moved on to acceptance.

Developing intercultural competence is not easily accomplished (Moodian, 2009). Exposure to various cultures is not enough; it takes a concerted effort, and a focus on unity.  This can be difficult because there can be no argument that some of humanity's most horrific crimes are being committed by and against the people of Africa.  We know that story.  We hear the horrifying statistics of countless rapes coming out of places like the Democratic Republic of Congo.  What we don't hear is about the Congolese gynecologist who works tirelessly to repair the physical damage caused by these rapes.  For every horror story that we hear about Africa there are countless untold stories of human resilience, kindness, and compassion.  Understanding that there is more than one story, and actively looking for that story is one way of learning intercultural competence.  As we begin to see less of a divide between 'us' and 'them' we can begin to work together to solve some of the very real issues in the world.

References:

Harris, P.R., Moran, R.T., Moran, S.V. (2004). Managing cultural differences: Global leadership strategies for the 21st century, 6th Ed., Oxford: UK, Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann.

Moodian, M.A. (2009), Contemporary leadership and intercultural competence: Understanding and utilizing cultural diversity to build successful organizations (pp. 95-110). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.)

Sodowsky, G. R., & Lai, E. W. M. (1997). Asian immigrant variables and structural models of cross-cultural distress. In A. Booth (Ed.), International migration and family change: The experience of U.S. immigrants. Mah- wah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Copywrite Jaime Booth Cundy 2011

The Power of Stories