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Archiving the little stories

September 5th, 2004 · No Comments

Grant the other day described “telling stories” at the University of Chicago

Every institution has these stories, and they all work pretty much the same way. They are one of the ways we induct people into the organization. I’m guessing that if we join Microsoft, we would be told little stories about “Bill.” These stories communicate essential secrets about the organization. And they drive the people at Human Resources crazy. HR has an official story of the corporation to tell, but little stories almost always tell another side of things. And too often, they get to shape the corporate culture.

These stories are charming even when they are wrong. They are quirky, imaginative, and captivating. (“Really, he’s still locked in there?”) But what they really do is to let us to divide the world into insiders and outsiders, the ones who know the oral culture and those who don’t, the ones who belong, and the drudges on the inside looking in. Little stories are the stuff of membership.

Universities and corporations have their little stories. And so do friends and families. If you’ve ever hung out with a group of people whom you don’t know, stayed with a friend’s family, attended a spouse’s reunion or spent time with a tribe of in-laws, you’ll encounter the culture of membership. I remember my own insecurities magnified at the reunions I would attend of Ted’s MIT friends years ago when our love was young. Course 6 or Building 20 mean nothing to me, nevermind the associated history and experiences they shared. Lacking a rat ring – and the insider secrets, I was an obvious outsider spouse.

Reading what Grant wrote, I started thinking about family culture. The little stories that are passed from one generation to another. Or the rituals repeated in time. Families often have their own histories that are different from what the outside world may know. There are secrets, legends and folklore in the tree.

But as I thought about which stories I could list as examples in this post from my own family, I began to wonder whether families in general still have their own culture of secrets and experiences. How many people would have family stories to recite? Or do we know the families that appear on television better than our own?

One example from our family is the myth that we were related to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Another one was a story about an uncle who fell down while walking with his hands in his pockets and knocked out his front teeth. Subsequent generations of children have been taught to always walk with one hand free, not in a pocket, so that you won’t end up like Uncle X…. There are a number of tales that define our family, whether it is the summer we stayed in a hostel in Washington D.C. or the winter my brother died. There are the silly memories such as the time we siblings pretended to be The Monkees, and the strange bittersweet culture we knew as children of divorce going between our parents’ homes. And there are the stories we told each other in the darkness as we four kids tried to sleep on our nights visiting our father’s house.

J.D. Lasica quoted how archiving stories and creating culture is becoming a way of entertainment and lifestyle:

Young people are consumed with archiving their lives through various means, whether it be a LiveJournal blog or an old-fashioned scrapbook. But they’re not just keeping track of what happened on their summer vacation; they’re seemingly turning the events of last weekend, or even last night, into a type of history for themselves and their circle of friends. Half of a night out is often spent documenting it. The ability to capture a memory with friends onto a phone and play it back immediately has turned reminiscing into a party pastime.

It seems that the archiving of little stories has become the little stories themselves. I wonder whether this next generation will be natural anthropologists – or only overloaded consumers of media images of themselves.

Blogs, of course, are an easy way to create archives and common culture. Sharing little stories typed into posts builds a shared history among readers and bloggers. Bloggers often create their own culture (or is it a cult?!) with its own jokes, vocabulary and images, as these pictures prove, dividing readers from non-readers.

Although I write many stories here, there are ones I won’t put on this page. My children’s nicknames, for example, I don’t want to share with the rest of the world. While I want to build a culture through this blog, I also want to reserve enough of my own family’s stories for us, to save some little stories for little Leung ears only.

Tags: culture