Storytelling in American dialogue

Over the past few years I’ve become a bit of an obsessive Americanophile. I don’t know how it works for others, but at points in life you realise there is this large continent a few hundred miles across the ocean where many of the people speak the same language as on your tiny island, and that they got it from you. Then pretty soon you realise you share ancestors. (Us Triggs have a county in Kentucky – though named after a man with a decidedly bloody history, it must be said.)

You understand that they owe you for a sense of social history but you owe them for many current cultural patterns stemming mainly from Hollywood, and that while there are huge similarities there are also unmistakable differences, and not just in terms of available land mass.

They have a characteristic and, I find, beautiful manner of speaking across ‘the pond’, which isn’t just down to dialect (indeed some find many of the variants of southern drawl ugly or plain incomprehensible). It comes across in their writing and manner of expression, and I feel has something to do with a broadly more optimistic outlook on life which I personally don’t think can all be put down to the American dream. But it’s even more nuanced than that. What is it about American speech, dialogue specifically, perhaps question and response more specifically, that is distinctive?

A year or so ago I happened upon the Americana podcast from the BBC. A half hour magazine show about all things, well, Americana, was just what I needed to feed my addiction, and help me feel like I was paying a quick visit to the world’s cousins with each installment. (I was sad when they shortly thereafter cut the programme from the schedule, probably for budgeting reasons at the Beeb.) On it I discovered an almost invariable pattern to the interviews conducted each week, illustrated by my transition from the last paragraph to this one. Over here I think we tend to follow questions with straight answers. This is thoroughly boring. I could have begun this paragraph with the word “storytelling”, and it would have been my answer, but that’s not how they do things.

I think they’re onto something. Often we feel a straight answer is adequate and sadly too many examinations and too much “education” especially in this country is based on ticking the correct boxes. But if Americans want to answer the question properly they want to help YOU understand, and so often as I listened to the podcast I would find that questions were not often immediately answered, but rather that the respondent would launch into an anecdote. At first it could seem way off topic, but as they drew it to a conclusion and finally gave their response, it came with far more power. That way the one who had first asked the question could then very often respond themselves and shape their understanding.

This “technique”, if that’s an appropriate word, throws up a valuable principle if we want to be better teachers of others. The scientific/mathematical approach just wants a straight answer so the exam can be passed. This approach I’m highlighting I would label legal/literary as it has qualities pertaining to both worlds. On the one hand anecdotes are often thrown up as evidence in support of a claim, and when this is done so before the claim itself is stipulated I think it’s all the more powerful. If the claim was argued first and the anecdote brought in as an afterthought it might be perceived as a partial fabrication, an attempt to dress up your claim with evidence. If however events speak for themselves and the hearers are already working toward the conclusion in their minds by their own analysis of data, it is potentially far more persuading. It is also literary because it does of course revolve to a certain extent around the ability to tell stories.

And ultimately it makes me hopeful that there is still, within humanity (at least most anthropoids stateside) an understanding that meaning can be gleaned from events in life, and that everything that goes on is not purely a product of chance rendered devoid of meaning by cosmic randomness. Whether us rain-soaked Brits can ever achieve the sense of positivism that seems to pervade a little more over there, I’m not sure, but I’d like to try a little more of this storytelling-as-response thing. Maybe it’ll help people to translate principle to experience, go beyond learning into understanding, and ply knowledge into wisdom.


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