The Danger of a Single Story

Check out this interesting TED talk by Chimamanda Adichie. Her message is so right on: Our perceptions of others usually arise from a “single story”.

I am keenly aware that the single story can limit needlessly people’s understanding of a person or thing.

I have a hearing loss so profound that it takes the roar of a jet engine to bring any meaningful semblance of sound to my brain (when I am not wearing my cochlear implant, of course). And even then, I may not hear anything.

The way people perceive me often comes from several different single stories (and that would take several blog posts to talk about them all!):

    • All deaf people know sign language.
    • I must be “Deaf”. The capitalization of the word indicates that people think I am part of a culture that uses American Sign Language (ASL).
    • It is important to talk louder or over-articulate to a deaf person.
    • Hearing aids or cochlear implants restore hearing to a deaf person.

Even though none of these stories are true for me, Chimananda explains it perfectly: they are examples of how to “show people as only one thing over and over again and that is what they become.”

Like Chimamanda, I sometimes feel that slight irritation when someone treats me in a certain way according to their single story of deafness. And my reactions to it depend on my mood that day. If I encounter that single story, I either brush it off, explain the truth using a little humor (most of the time), or get frustrated and say something I later regret (rarely).

Like Chimamanda, I am guilty of treating others according to MY own single story of them. Her words have made me more aware of my judgments and I realize I must find out what their story really is instead of quickly jumping to conclusions.

That reminds me of an excellent book I read not too long ago called “Difficult Conversations” by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. The book cleverly shows the reader that we all have a story that we bring to a conflict with someone else and in order to resolve this conflict (possibly through a difficult conversation), it is important to make an attempt to understand the other person’s story and to recognize you bring your own assumptions about that person’s story.

If someone talks just a little too loudly, thinking it will help me, (and it really doesn’t usually, except maybe in a noisy environment), and I want to give this person a reality check, I must first consider their own story- where did they get this information and what is the FULL story? Could it be from the media or could it be simple ignorance? But then again, I have to factor in how much time and energy I have to understand or “correct” that misperception.

This quote from Chimamanda’s talk resonated deeply with me — you could replace the key words roommateAfricacatastrophe with colleague/neighbor/daughter’s friend –  deaf person/person with hearing lossdisability in that quote and it could describe me:

“My roommate felt sorry for me before she even met me. Her default position toward me as an African was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

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2 Responses to The Danger of a Single Story

  1. Katherine C says:

    I actually saw part of an interview with CNA yesterday on an UK news program and was intrigued by a statement she made about why it is important to address skin colour issues since people are inevitably judged by their skin colour (rather than sweep skin colour issues under the carpet under the umbrella of multiculturalism) … reading your post inspires me to find out a bit more about her and her opinions.

  2. esralston says:

    Reblogged this on The Inspired Philanthropist and commented:

    In honor of International Women’s Day, I am reposting some reflections about Chimamanda Adichie’s Ted talk, “Danger of a Single Story.”

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