Personal Narrative – How We Reveal Ourselves
When we talk to one another we engage in a ritual. Most people, of course, don’t think of it that way, but there are distinct patterns we follow in verbal exchanges. One type of exchange is the sharing of stories. The way we tell our stories to each other allows us to do so many things: build reputation, share awe, warn, teach, threaten, celebrate and explore, among others. Today we’ll discuss how we use stories to reveal ourselves and to reflect others.
Stories are our lives in language. Welcome to the Love Your Story podcast. I’m Lori Lee, and I’m excited for our future together of telling stories, evaluating our own stories, and lifting ourselves and others to greater places because of our control over our stories. This podcast is about empowerment and giving you, the listener, ideas to work with in making your stories work for you. Power serves you best when you know how to use it.
During my study of the personal narrative, I used Erving Goffman’s research and writings on the interaction ritual a great deal. I studied his work in detail because the idea of a simple conversation being a complex ritual was fascinating. As I broke apart his work I marveled that a mind could take apart such common everyday actions and find these patterns. But he was right on. We do follow patterns when we talk with one another, and as he discovered, “face” is the pivot point of the ritual.
Let me share some definitions:
“Face” as Goffman defines it, is the “positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact.” One might consider this your base reputation.
A “line” is a pattern of verbal and non-verbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation. Something like one’s perspective on a topic.
If a person is “in face” then the encounter allows that person to sustain an image of oneself that he/she is comfortable with and frankly takes for granted. Which means that your reputation is in-line with what you are comfortable with.
If a person is “out of face” it means that information has been brought forth that does not sustain the face being held for that person. Or, in other words, that the person has not maintained their reputation. For example, if someone considers themselves smart, and they are considered smart in their social groups, and they do something foolish, they are “out of face.”
“Face work” is action taken to make whatever he/she is doing consistent with the “face” he/she has established. So, you’re working to maintain your reputation as whatever you are comfortable with by the things you say and do.
“Poise” is the ability to suppress and conceal any tendency to become shamefaced during encounters.
To “Save Face” is a process by which a person sustains an impression for others that he has not lost face.
To “Give Face” is to arrange for another to get a better line than he could have gotten otherwise. So, perhaps to brag someone up upon introduction, which is not something they could have done for themselves.
You get the idea here. Basic concepts we understand and take for granted in our exchanges are actually part of a ritual that we intuitively understand because we have learned it through our cultural upbringing. So why do I want to take this apart? We are always discussing in this podcast how the power of story is a powerful tool. And, as I say in the beginning of every podcast, “power works best when you know how to use it.” Understanding how we use our stories, and what they do for us in these ritual exchanges, every day, allows us to purposefully manage “face” and understand what it means when we share parts of ourselves and our stories. By the time this episode is over you will have a greater awareness of how and why you use your stories in these exchanges.
One of the important aspects of “face” that must be acknowledged is that while everyone varies to some degree in how much they claim to care about what others think, everyone has a vision of themselves they wish to portray. This self-image is deeply meaningful to each of us and emotional responses are attached to it. Goffman points out that when we are in social situations where our “face” plays out as it should, we feel good and confident. But if we have an encounter where our ordinary expectations of face are not maintained we feel bad, hurt, or ashamed. These acknowledgements of the emotional import of maintaining “face” and its impact on our ability to function well establishes the serious nature of this ritual and the ritual outcome.
So, here’s the kicker – while this social “face” can be one of our most personal possessions, it IS on loan from society. It can be revoked by others if we don’t live up to the “face” we’ve built, or we don’t engage in the ritual properly. For example, one aspect of the ritual is that when someone is ready to leave the ritual they will start using phrases or body language to turn away or cut off conversation. It the other person in the ritual /conversation doesn’t get the clues being dropped and continues to talk and talk, it is likely that people will avoid talking to this person in the future if this is an ongoing oversight. Know what I mean? Hence the natural inclination for each of us to carefully and appropriately navigate through our communication rituals. One of the ways this is done is through the stories we share and our ability to live up to those stories.
For example, let’s say a new student arrives on campus and is quite vocal sharing experiences and stories about their successes at the school they’ve just transferred from. The student is in the drama department and they claim many experiences with leading roles and much acting exposure on the stage. The student drops names and techniques and talks the talk, but when it comes time to walk the walk her performance does not match the face she has claimed. She has used stories about her past experiences that show her to be experienced and strong in her field of singing, dancing and acting, but upon performing she is unable to keep this face. In which case, she is now ‘out of face’ with her society. Her reputation then changes to be not only one that does not live up to her stories, but is now also jaded by the shadow of mistrust. This is what face is and how it works. Now let’s look at some other conversational techniques.
In my thesis research, I discovered the fun phenomenon of what I call “plugging into the domino train.” This is where one person tells a story and those listening automatically start scanning the filing cabinets of their minds for links to their own stories. For example, eight of us were sitting in a yurt one evening after a day of biking. We were just kicking back and talking about nothing in particular. One person mentions that he connects well with older people, and how they trust him. I believe he was specifically referring to his grandparents. Another participant finds a story in his stash of experiences that illustrates him as someone who is also trusted by “older people.” He plugs his story into the conversational domino train, so to speak, and takes over the conversation with his tale of how he used to work for an older gentleman who had health issues, and how he became good friends with this man and a trusted family confidant. While he is telling his story, everyone else in the group has that mental machine running at full speed also. If during his story he mentions something and someone else has a similar story, then upon his completion the person will/can/may try to plug into the conversational domino train with their story. So, for instance, let’s say that during his story about working for this older gentlemen, he expressed that the man was a university professor and had a beautiful collection of old books that the city had asked him to donate to a special collection in the library. Those listening to the story will simply be scanning for points of connection as they listen. Do they have a story or experience with a beautiful collection of books, or the city asking for a donation, or helping the elderly? They can plug in at any point to which they can find a tie, it simply depends upon them having an experience to connect with. It’s how conversation works. This is why when we speak with someone with whom we have things in common the conversation is much smoother than it is with someone who has different interests. I once went out with a guy who did very little outdoor recreation. The date went fine, but I was having a hard time finding common ground for discussion. We stopped by his apartment for him to grab something, and his roommate was there. As I sat and made conversation with his roommate, I found that he was an avid outdoorsman. Our conversation flew. We talked non-stop, with no awkward moments of trying to fill the silence, while his roommate found whatever it was he was looking for. The contrast for me was so stark that I still remember the pretty meaningless event years later. Unless we are skilled conversationalists who are not constantly stuck inside our own heads, and we understand how to ask questions and delve into another’s experiences, the conversation will die upon running out of common ground, or it will drone on as one person talks only about themselves.
So, let’s go back to this space where someone in the conversation is telling a story, our minds are scanning for a way to plug into what they are talking about, and let’s say that your scanning brings up a story about you and the city making a request from you (so you can plug in there) but your story involves a nefarious plot where you were caught stealing a book, let’s say. When this experience/story comes to mind you will automatically scan it to decide if telling this story will allow you to maintain an acceptable “face” with the people who are in the conversation. So, for example, you may be with a group of friends for whom stealing a book would be funny or acceptable – in which case you would choose to share the story because you could maintain the face you are comfortable with within this group. On the other hand, if you were with your parents, for instance, this may not be a story you would choose to tell. So, the mind is constantly scanning for ways to socially engage, but it is also protecting your socially constructed face by sifting through which stories you will share with which audiences. This is managing face with your stories.
Within the outdoor recreation folk group, or in my case, a group of my friends, stories are always being told. We create stories with every adventure and as I started listening closely and dissecting their stories I started to find how our stories create the masks we wear.
In our society, it is not looked upon favorably to walk up to others and begin talking about how cool you are and bragging about the things you’re good at. If you do that you automatically repel the people around you and you lose face for not understanding how the ritual works. It’s a ritually destructive move for your ‘face’ as a competent conversationalist. On the other hand, it IS perfectly acceptable for you to share a story that promotes a positive self-image and provides proof, through action, of your skills and accomplishments.
For example, one day my son and I and a friend were riding the ziplines at the Park City Olympic Park. We were racing and my son and I were teasing each other about who won and who lost. He claimed he lost because a branch hit him. This triggered the “domino train” for my friend who then started telling a story about being hit by a branch while he was riding at high speeds on a trail on the Hawaiian islands. As he told the story of biking, in what sounded like jungle, and the branch that struck out and gave him a vicious bite, he established through his tale that 1. He is serious enough about mountain biking that he will partake of the sport even in remote places. 2. That he has a certain skill set to ride in the conditions he described, and 3. That he was a little extreme because he could claim bite marks by a plant that had actually left scars. He was able to relay information about himself through the story in a form that was acceptable and starts to build his face, or reinforce the face we already know.
Within the outdoor recreation folk group there are a number of sorting processes going on as people talk among themselves. No one ever spells these out, they are the unwritten sorting taking place in our minds. One of these is that as we tell our stories we are imparting information about our legitimacy inside the group. The trails or areas we refer to, the sports we participate in, how often we participate and at what level tell the listener if we are a poser, a beginner, a weekend warrior or an expert. This presentation of self is enfolded in a story that is told to relive the past, share an experience, encourage, share awe, or any number of other functions, but couched in that primary purpose is also a load of information about the teller. We see, in action, that person providing proof as to his/her abilities and interactions with the world. This is one form of self-presentation among many. The stories confirm to ourselves and to others who we are.
So, if this is the case, and we are subconsciously or automatically sorting and editing our stories anyway, what if we managed them?
“McAdams, in his paper Psychology of Life Stories, says, “Life stories are psychosocial constructions, co-authored by the person himself or herself and the cultural context within which that person’s life is embedded and given meaning. As such, individual life stories reflect cultural values and norms, including assumptions about gender, race and class.”
Stories organize and show our motivations. They show us in action. People act for the sake of what they want and what they believe in, so stories show us rather than tell us a great deal about ourselves and others. They also allow us to show others who we are, and they portray the culture and world that we live in as well.
Man, we can sure get a lot of information out of a simple story. And, there’s more, so much more…but for this week, your challenge is to write out a list of your best qualities. Then find a story that provides proof of you exhibiting these qualities. If you feel you are a loyal person, find a story of a time you showed loyalty to someone. If you feel you are honest, find a story that exemplifies this quality in you. If you can’t find any examples, then you get to consider that maybe you are not as loyal or honest as you like to believe, and you can make life and living adjustments accordingly. But as you find the stories of you living up to these qualities you will see how they can be used to define and clarify yourself, not only to others but also to you. You may even want to ask your friends about their most memorable stories with you and then take a look at what those stories show you doing. Our identities develop as a result of our social experiences and our relationships with others. In fact, identity itself is a story. But, as we have discussed in many other episodes, we get to manage those stories. Our power is in the acceptance of the messiness and realness of our stories (episode 8) because we can’t truly thrive without an acceptance and love of ourselves, and we cannot give what is not ours. But our stories are uniquely ours. Your story is uniquely yours. You have a unique voice and you can only tell the story that you know how to tell, but that’s exactly the story that should be told. That story comes from a complex social construct, but your identity is formed and reinforced by the stories you create and tell about yourself. Manage those stories by focusing on the ones that exemplify your strengths, not the stories that compare or discourage.
Have fun this week out there telling your stories. Remember that what we focus on is what we create. Focus on the stories of your awesome moments! I promise – you have them. See you next week on the Love Your Story podcast.