Episode 7: Story telling

We recorded this episode in September 2019, when Britain was still part of the European Union and the Brexit debate was in full swing. At the beginning of the episode, we talk about a contribution to a debate in the British House of Commons that started with a story. Here’s is the beginning of the transcript of Nick Boles’ contribution (03/09/19, European Union (Withdrawal) emergency debate, 8.37pm, Hansard column 113):

Nick Boles
(Grantham and Stamford) (Ind)

I rise to support the motion in the name of my friend, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin).​

On the morning of 7 February 2017, I woke up in an isolation room at King’s College Hospital, where I was receiving chemotherapy. My blood counts were rock bottom and the chances of an infection high. Weak as a kitten, I got dressed. My friend and parliamentary neighbour the Brexit Secretary, who was then a Government Whip, met me at the entrance to the ward with a hospital porter and a wheelchair. He took me out to the Chief Whip’s car and we were driven to Parliament so that I could vote for the article 50 Bill.

Since that moment, I have done everything in my power to deliver Brexit with a deal that protects jobs and livelihoods, and preserves our national unity and our international standing.

We then discuss how people relate life events, such as a (heterosexual) divorce, by telling stories rather than completing questionnaires, as shown in the research by sociologist Catherine Riessman:

Riessman, C. K. (1990). Divorce Talk: Women and men make sense of personal relationships. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

The classical account of stories as a product is linked with the name of William Labov, while Alexandra Georgakopoulou has more recently refocused narrative research on storytelling as a social process:

Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (ed.) Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 12-44.

Georgakopoulou, A. (2019). Sharing the moment as small stories: the interplay between practices & affordances in the social media-curation of lives. In A. De Fina &  S. Perrino (eds) Storytelling in the Digital World. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp.105-127.

Moving on to corporate stories, the history of Ben & Jerry’s, as told by themselves, can be found here: https://www.benjerry.co.uk/about-us. Erika mentions how Ben & Jerry’s , and indeed any corporate story now gets co-written on social media, as detailed in this book:

Page, R. (2018). Narratives Online: shared stories in social media. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

An example of brand stories being co-told by consumers is the KitKat chocolate bar, which actually has a hashtag on the product itself:

Moving on to the interview, our guest for this episode is Professor David Boje from New Mexico State University: https://business.nmsu.edu/directory/management/boje-david/, https://davidboje.com/

At the beginning of the interview, David Boje mentions how his approach to stories was fundamentally changed when he met Kaylynn Sullivan TwoTrees, an artist, scholar and coach who espouses the concept of people as ‘living stories’ connected to nature. You can find out more about her work and philosophy here: https://ktwotrees.com/

David then talks about the 1981 play Tamara by John Krizanc, which is based on an actual meeting between the 1920s painters Tamara de Lempicka and Gabriele d’Annunzio at his villa near Lake Garda in Italy. The play allows the audience to follow the actors into rooms of their choice, so every audience member witnesses a different storyline. He uses the set-up of the play as an analogy for multinational companies that have different ‘living stories’ in multiple locations. David’s previous work on the Disney corporation is of particular interest here:

Boje, D. M. (1995). Stories of the storytelling organization: a postmodern analysis of Disney as “Tamara-Land”. Academy of Management Journal, 38(4), 997-1035.

We then move on to David’s more recent work, specifically his book on stories around the climate emergency:

Boje, D. M. (2019). Storytelling in the Global Age: there is no Planet B. London: World Scientific.

Staying with the topic of climate emergency, we analyse the opening of a TED talk that climate activist Greta Thunberg gave in November 2018. The full transcript and video of her talk is available at https://www.ted.com/talks/greta_thunberg_the_disarming_case_to_act_right_now_on_climate/transcript and here are some more thoughts we had onwhat follows after the first two minutes [in square brackets]:

02:15

For those of us who are on the spectrum, almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying, and we usually don’t enjoy participating in this social game that the rest of you seem so fond of.

[The speaker here constructs two groups: people with and without Asperger’s, i.e. herself and the audience (‘you’).]

02:29

(Laughter)

02:30

I think in many ways that we autistic are the normal ones, and the rest of the people are pretty strange,

[There are two groups again – people with and without Asperger’s -, but no direct address this time.]

02:36

(Laughter)

02:37

especially when it comes to the sustainability crisis, where everyone keeps saying climate change is an existential threat and the most important issue of all, and yet they just carry on like before. I don’t understand that, because if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions. To me that is black or white. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival. Either we go on as a civilization or we don’t. We have to change.

[The speaker here uses present tense (‘they just carry on’), expresses obligation through deontic modality (‘we must stop the emissions’) and constructs a series of main clauses (known as parataxis).]

03:12

Rich countries like Sweden need to start reducing emissions by at least 15 percent every year. And that is so that we can stay below a two-degree warming target. Yet, as the IPCC have recently demonstrated, aiming instead for 1.5 degrees Celsius would significantly reduce the climate impacts. But we can only imagine what that means for reducing emissions. You would think the media and every one of our leaders would be talking about nothing else, but they never even mention it. Nor does anyone ever mention the greenhouse gases already locked in the system. Nor that air pollution is hiding a warming so that when we stop burning fossil fuels, we already have an extra level of warming perhaps as high as 0.5 to 1.1 degrees Celsius. Furthermore, hardly anyone speaks about the fact that we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, with up to 200 species going extinct every single day, that the extinction rate today is between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than what is seen as normal. Nor does hardly anyone ever speak about the aspect of equity or climate justice, clearly stated everywhere in the Paris Agreement, which is absolutely necessary to make it work on a global scale. That means that rich countries need to get down to zero emissions within 6 to 12 years, with today’s emission speed. And that is so that people in poorer countries can have a chance to heighten their standard of living by building some of the infrastructure that we have already built, such as roads, schools, hospitals, clean drinking water, electricity, and so on. Because how can we expect countries like India or Nigeria to care about the climate crisis if we who already have everything don’t care even a second about it or our actual commitments to the Paris Agreement?

[The speaker presents facts and figures, followed by more deontic modality (‘rich countries need to get down to zero emissions’). She also draws a distinction between developed and developing countrise, and highlights the undesirable present state of climate change and the widespread silence about it.]

05:32

So, why are we not reducing our emissions? Why are they in fact still increasing? Are we knowingly causing a mass extinction? Are we evil? No, of course not. People keep doing what they do because the vast majority doesn’t have a clue about the actual consequences of our everyday life, and they don’t know that rapid change is required. We all think we know, and we all think everybody knows, but we don’t. Because how could we? If there really was a crisis, and if this crisis was caused by our emissions, you would at least see some signs. Not just flooded cities, tens of thousands of dead people, and whole nations leveled to piles of torn down buildings. You would see some restrictions. But no. And no one talks about it. There are no emergency meetings, no headlines, no breaking news. No one is acting as if we were in a crisis. Even most climate scientists or green politicians keep on flying around the world, eating meat and dairy.

[The first two questions here are open questions, while the latter two are rhetorical questions.  The speaker equates ‘they’ and ‘we’, indicating that the whole of humankind is and will be affected by climate change.] 

If I live to be 100, I will be alive in the year 2103. When you think about the future today, you don’t think beyond the year 2050. By then, I will, in the best case, not even have lived half of my life.

07:22

What happens next? The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children or grandchildren, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you, the people who were around, back in 2018. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act. What we do or don’t do right now will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now, me and my generation can’t undo in the future.

[Thunberg here tells a story about the future, using so-called epistemic modality to indicate possible future events (‘maybe they will ask’).]

So when school started in August of this year, I decided that this was enough. I set myself down on the ground outside the Swedish parliament. I school striked for the climate. Some people say that I should be in school instead. Some people say that I should study to become a climate scientist so that I can “solve the climate crisis”. But the climate crisis has already been solved. We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is to wake up and change. And why should I be studying for a future that soon will be no more when no one is doing anything whatsoever to save that future? And what is the point of learning facts in the school system when the most important facts given by the finest science of that same school system clearly means nothing to our politicians and our society. Some people say that Sweden is just a small country, and that it doesn’t matter what we do, but I think that if a few children can get headlines all over the world just by not coming to school for a few weeks, imagine what we could all do together if you wanted to.

[Towards the end of the talk, Thunberg tells a story about her recent past, combining it with rhetorical questions (‘’Why should I be studying’) and engaging with other views (‘some people say…’)]

09:32

(Applause)

09:36

Now we’re almost at the end of my talk, and this is where people usually start talking about hope, solar panels, wind power, circular economy, and so on, but I’m not going to do that. We’ve had 30 years of pep-talking and selling positive ideas. And I’m sorry, but it doesn’t work. Because if it would have, the emissions would have gone down by now. They haven’t. And yes, we do need hope, of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere.

10:23

So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.

[The speaker makes a comment on the structure and content of climate emergency stories.]

10:34

Today, we use 100 million barrels of oil every single day. There are no politics to change that. There are no rules to keep that oil in the ground. So we can’t save the world by playing by the rules, because the rules have to be changed.

10:56

Everything needs to change – and it has to start today.

[She finishes by calling for change, using more deontic modality (‘it has to start’).]

11:01

Thank you.

11:02

(Applause)

And finally, it so happened that while we were recording episode 3, one of us received an email about the global climate strike on 20 September 2019. The message included quotes from  two women – one old, one young – with seemingly different takes on the climate emergency. But their messages are not that different really, they are just tapping into stories told at different levels.

Greta Thunberg
Dr Jane Goodall

Listen to the episode here

Full transcription of the episode

References and Further Reading

Boje, D. M. (1995). Stories of the storytelling organization: a postmodern analysis of Disney as “Tamara-Land”. Academy of Management Journal, 38(4), 997-1035.

Boje, D. M. (2019). Storytelling in the Global Age: there is no Planet B. London: World Scientific.

Georgakopoulou, A. (2019). Sharing the moment as small stories: the interplay between practices & affordances in the social media-curation of lives. In A. De Fina &  S. Perrino (eds) Storytelling in the Digital World. Amsterdam: Benjamins, pp.105-127.

Labov, W., & Waletzky, J. (1967). Narrative analysis: oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (ed.) Essays on the Verbal and Visual Arts. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 12-44.

Page, R. (2018). Narratives Online: shared stories in social media. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Riessman, C. K. (1990). Divorce Talk: Women and men make sense of personal relationships. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

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