Symmentropy in Small Doses: Page 3

This third dose of Symmentropy should be easier to swallow, no graphics or telephone engineers. It does start to bring in ideas of non linear storytelling, but only a little.

Third rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling rarely produces the outcome we expect.

By Lee McGavin
The first time I said, “I can't be responsible for what your hear, only what I say” my artist launched into an assault on all of my nonlinear guidelines of telling stories. This one had gone too far! Think back and even before you went to school you probably heard one of your parents tell you that you were not listening. We are all taught that what we say means what we said and there is no possibility that if you hear the words, you can get it wrong. I know that the first time I heard, “You're not listening”, I knew that something was rotten in Denmark. I could not explain it when I was in grade school, but I was able to explain it to my artist, even if she has not bought into the idea just yet.

The third guideline for symmentropy says that we are surprised when what we say is misunderstood. We know exactly what we mean when we say something, so what happens that allows someone to hear what we obviously did not say and why are we surprised? In the last five posts, I have offered brief and grossly unfair sketches of my brothers and sisters. These sketches represent these people by putting each of them into nice little boxes of generality. Without these sketches, it would be impossible to make sense of how each member of the family behaved when we tried to work together. We need those stereotypes to build a framework for understanding and working with a group of people. If we could just stop there, without demanding that people stay in their little boxes, stereotypes would be rendered harmless. Every time we are surprised by someone's response to what we say, it is because they have crawled out of the box and shown some independent thought that does not fit with our expectation.

Our system of speaking works pretty well because it is based on words. We agree to always call the furry things with four legs that bark, “dogs” because it is easier than “furry things with four legs that bark” and because if some of us called them “chairs” and some of us called them “dogs”, it would be confusing. We also have rituals for responding to each other. I say, “Hi, how are you?” and you reply, “Fine, and you?” We have enacted a ritual of our culture by exchanging greetings but have not really said anything at all. We just followed the rules of civility. We have rules for the meaning of words and rules for structuring conversation because if we did not, we would never understand anything.

My father fell on the low side of average as a father, but, wow!, did he rank up there on the grandfather scale.
Story Chip Blog

When I wrote that sentence in an earlier post, I hoped for the reader to get a sense of the enormity of the change in the man. I wrote words trying to capture the essence of those years. The response to those words came fast and furious. “How can you say he was a bad father?” “You were always angry and hated your parents!” I know to expect this kind of response. My artist tells me that I use words precisely because I know that people will react to them. Guilty! I always agree with her because I do use words to involve the reader in more compelling text. The problem, whether you are writing or speaking lies with the distance you stray from the rules. When we want to communicate a more powerful message, we bend the rules. Every time the rules get distorted, some will react negatively and some will think it is great. My rule of thumb is that if you have not offended someone, you have not said anything.

All that I have to do is type the word “abortion” to guarantee that part of the audience will immediately go off on their own political view based on the their own stories. Most words carry the same ability to allow many responses to the word itself. I have a choice, I can limit my vocabulary to words that have no connotations (I do not believe there are any) or I can use words knowing that people will respond based on their stories. My choice should be obvious, and realize that my expectations will create surprises.

We can not prevent being surprised by how people interpret what we say or do until we know all the stories and all of the possible ways that someone can respond to our stories. What we can do is take responsibility for what we say, not what others hear. We can put all of those primary teachers on silent so that we can be the masters of our own stories.

My youngest brother told me the story of an argument with his ex that focused on things that he would not do because they went against his principles. This happened not long after our father's death and he held tender memories of dad's value structure in his daily activities. In exasperation, she looked at my brother and said “At the end of the day, all that you will have left is your principles!” My brother was stunned that this was supposed to persuade him to see things a different way. After thinking for just a moment, he softly replied, “Thank, you. I hope so.”

I include this story because even when you have lived with someone for 20 years, their reactions will still surprise you. As much as we want to believe that people will respond the way want them to, possible alternatives keep piling on to prevent predictability. The first thing that we need to do is free ourselves of the disappointment that we feel when greeted with something unforeseen. Embrace it as a new richness in your understanding of people and their stories. Now be responsible for what you said and tell a different story or version of the story that makes your idea understandable to the audience.

In fact, the next several blogs will explore ways that we make ourselves understood and how we tell our stories.

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