Friday, 19 August 2011

(Re)telling Stories

 


Have you ever been in a position where a person has told you a story about something that has happened to them and then you hear that same person telling the same story to someone else? You might have thought to yourself, “Hmm…that’s not the way I heard it”. That’s because it seems that our stories change according to who we are telling and what we are trying to achieve in that particular interaction.

We all tell stories in our everyday conversations. Typically, the teller of a story gives a report of an event in its chronological order to one or more recipients. In doing so, the teller performs some kind of social action be it boasting, providing an explanation, complaining or apologising among other things. It is also well known that we modify our stories according to our audience and this is manifested in such ways as topic selection, word choice, how we open and close sequences and in the ordering of sequences themselves. When we are telling a story to several people at once we also modify the telling of the story to take into account the recipients’ knowledge of the reported event. But what resources does a teller draw on when telling the same story at different times and to different recipients who have varying degrees of knowledge and perhaps opposing perspectives on the reported event?

This is what Maarit Niemelä and Mirka Rauniomaa have been investigating. In examining how one person tells the same story over a series of telephone calls to three different recipients they examine some of the features that change according to who the recipient of the story is. They also analyse what ‘stance’ the interlocutors take, in other words how the interlocutors portray themselves and others in a certain light in view of the subject matter at hand.

The case they analyse involves a young man who makes three phone calls on the same day to three different people. He tells each recipient about the trouble he’s been having with his computer monitor. The receiver of the call is already aware or is explicitly made aware during the call that the monitor had broken down and had been taken to the warranty service some time ago. Having got the monitor back from the warranty service, the young man had reconnected it and used it for a short time but it had broken down again.

The researchers show that in each (re)telling some essential parts of the story remain constant, for example the order in which things happened and the highlight of the story which is that the monitor has broken down for a second time. However, other things that are less constant such as the evaluations and the degree of detail in the telling are shaped by the teller’s stance, the reason for the call and the relationship between the teller and the recipient. In all three cases the story might be categorised as a ‘troubles-telling’ story but in the first call to a law student friend the storyteller not only vents his frustration by using the expression ‘now I’m pissed off’ but also uses the call as a request for legal advice with the use of ‘you being a lawyer and all’ and ‘can you give me any advice’. The second call is to a flat-mate and again the teller displays his irritation with the use this time of ‘I’m so shattered’ but this call is considered to be for the purpose of providing information to someone who may be affected by the events by his use of ‘I just realized that I didn’t call you yet’. The third call is to someone that the storyteller seems to be more familiar with and who seems to be a fellow computer game-player. Again, the venting of feelings is explicit as in ‘bloody hell my computer monitor broke down again’ and ‘I’m calling like really angry’ but this time the call seems to be for the purpose of soliciting sympathy as shown in expressions such as ‘I need comforting right now’ and ‘this is so unfair’.
By examining how stories get retold on multiple occasions the researchers have shown that a teller modifies the story in order to accomplish certain social actions and that individual features of the (re)tellings are designed with the recipient in mind and will depend on such things as the type of relationship between the teller and recipient and the shared knowledge they have about the events. So remember that when someone tells you a story it is rarely just a simple reporting of events!
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 Niemelä, M. and Rauniomaa, M. (2010). Mobilizing
 (Re)tellings of a Story to Accomplish Multiple Social Actions.                                    

This summary was written by Sue Fox

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