The Stories We Tell, And What They Say About Us

09May07

If you would seek to really understand people, you must first understand the stories they tell in the exact words they use to tell them. This seems obvious — metaphors and word choice reflect the cognitive frames of a person — but this is actually a profound insight, and one that didn’t take hold until the 19th Century among Western thinkers.

If would have taken us much longer to recognize the value of authentic folklore had it not been for Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. They were brothers. You might have heard of them. Here is what the famed folklorists showed as they gathered the tales of people in the German countryside: Stories themselves are always interesting. Stories that are untainted by an observer’s preconceived notions are much more interesting and tell us much more about the storyteller.

Prior to the Grimms’ work in the early 19th Century, the oral tradition of cultures tended to change during transmission. It’s easy to see why this might be so. When the Romans adopted the Greek gods as their new pantheon, they changed the names of the group to be more Roman. They altered myths into forms that fit the Roman culture. When the Romans later adopted Christanity as their new religion, they created a new religion that was as Roman as it was Catholic. William Shakespeare took stories that were popular from culture and institutionalized them and twisted them for his plays to advance his particular worldview. He even changed history to best favor his current patrons.

What does this mean? By controlling the terms of the stories that people built their lives around, whether religions or mere folk tales, the powerful sought to control the way that ordinary folks thought about their everyday lives. It’s a deductive view of the world. And it only works up to a point.

The great irony that we recognize now, of course, is that stories are the keys to finding out what really keeps people up at night. And when you find out those big needs, it becomes possible to get a group to behave the way you want it to. What’s easier to do? Trying to change someone’s mind by arguing with them or agreeing with them and very subtly changing what it is they agree to? Obviously, it’s the latter. Such implicit reframes are only possible when you speak in terms of the stories that people are already telling themselves.

What the Brothers Grimm really achieved with their famed accounts of folklore was what readers believed to be an accurate snapshot of the stories people in the German countryside told one another. None-too-surprisingly, the Grimms themselves didn’t practice what they preached: They altered the stories they gathered every bit as much as the earlier generation folklorists they sought to distinguish themselves from. But it didn’t matter. People believed that the Grimms had been what they said they were. Because of that belief, followers did practice directly sourced folklorism, even though their role models turned out to be fraud.

After all, people want to believe in a good story. And who doesn’t love that?

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