The Power of Two-Way Storytelling

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Last Updated on November 13, 2017 by

“How do you like your mother-in-law?” Shanti, a Bangladeshi university student asked me while our train made its way across western Bangladesh. After eyeing me for some time, she'd finally worked up the courage to sit next to me when our train compartment emptied at the previous stop.

Odd question, I thought. But she was deliberate and determined in the way she asked. I figured there was something more meaningful behind it, something at the root that she wanted to share. I also noticed her apprehension; I would need to open up and share my story first to find out.

This is how two-way storytelling often begins.

Bangladesh Trains - Khulna to Rajshahi
A train ride through rural Bangladesh.

What Is Two-Way Storytelling?

For many of us, listening to and sharing stories of the people we encounter is one of the greatest joys of travel. Stories connect people like no other mechanism, and storytelling helps us to communicate experience and a sense of place and culture.

But often, this is a one-directional process.

Two-way storytelling, however, goes a step further and adds a twist. In addition to listening to the stories of others, it involves telling your story as well. I’m not talking about the random share — say, how great a time you had at the bar last night or how much you loved this morning’s visit to the local museum. There’s nothing wrong with that. For this purpose, though, I’m suggesting you offer something revealing about you or your background. When invited, perhaps by a question, respond with something discontinuous that might inform or shift the way someone thinks about your culture, where you come from.

What does this kind of two-way storytelling achieve? It helps dislodge preconceptions and dispel stereotypes by breaking down barriers on both sides of the conversation, not just on the part of the traveler. It deepens the experience and the connection. And it helps to slowly dissolve fear.

Here’s how.

5 Reasons Why Two-Way Storytelling Matters

It Exposes Value in the “Ordinary” (Republic of Georgia)

Simple questions can get the process started.

“Do you have mountains in America?” a middle-aged vegetable vendor at a fresh market in the town of Telavi, Georgia once asked me as I admired the mountains surrounding his town. At first I thought he was joking, but his expression indicated a genuine question. He didn’t really know much about the United States, including its geography. Why would he? Why should he? Similarly, what might the average American know about the Republic of Georgia?

I answered his question in my broken Russian the best I could, extolling the cultural and natural diversity of the United States while making comparisons, where appropriate, to places I had seen in Georgia. I tried to describe the vastness of the Grand Canyon, the red rocks of Utah, the vineyards of Napa Valley (as we were in Georgian wine country at the time). I added, in simple terms, that the United States is huge, especially when compared to Georgia. I also noted it’s difficult to generalize the country on the whole since each region can look and feel so different.

 Lada Full of Tomatoes - Kakheti, Georgia
Market days in Telavi, Georgia.

“There are so many different people from all over the world living in the United States, so sometimes it can feel like many countries in one,” I explained, trying to shed light one of the aspects of the U.S. that makes it unique, yet doesn’t always seem widely understood. He got the connection, as eastern Georgia’s refugee and immigrant population had recently increased.

Just as others halfway around the world fascinate us with features of their lives they consider ordinary, so we have the opportunity to fascinate them with ours. This is especially true for people who may never have the option to travel to your country to see for themselves.

One-way storytelling encourages travelers to be keen observers and question assumptions. But it’s two-way storytelling that allows locals to benefit from this learning process, too.

It Breaks Stereotypes in All Directions (India)

While visiting the northern Indian city of Chandigargh, we met a couple of young women who’d recently graduated from business school. I was the first American they’d ever met. They bubbled with curiosity and excitement to know what life as an American woman was really like. Their questions for me ran immediately to dating, marriage, and love. I noticed them closely observing my behavior and dress, something I kept deliberately conservative and respectful. They attempted to square their observations with the prevailing stereotype in India of American women as being sexually available.

“Do American women date lots of different men at once? Is it really like what we see on Sex in the City?” they asked.

I was not at all offended; there was an innocence and sincere curiosity behind their questions.
“Well…not really,” I said. And then I went on to talk about my own dating experience, as well as that of my friends.

After sharing this, which perhaps disappointed them by not being more racy, I tried to turn things around: “What about Bollywood movies? Is that real life? Sexy outfits, provocative dancing, and all — is that the real India?”

“Well, we all know that’s not real life,” they said, laughing.

Then there was a pause. My point about Hollywood movies not really representing the real United States, the entire United States, finally landed.

Beautiful Henna Hands - Chandigarh, India
Beautiful henna'd hands from my Indian friend.

One of them shared an experience of how she met her fiancé at graduate school. She explained how “dating” was relatively new in India, that she had challenges ahead to convince her parents to let her marry someone who was of a different, lower caste.

“But I’m confident I’ll succeed with my parents. Times are changing in India; not everyone wants an arranged marriage. They have to agree,” she concluded. (Spoiler alert: they did marry and have a couple of beautiful children.) My understanding of modern Indian relationships evolved.

We are all susceptible to prejudging, and to being prejudged. None of us is immune; stereotypes run in all directions. And two-way storytelling helps uproot all of it so we may recalibrate our thinking.

It Brings Us Closer Together (Laos)

“Can you explain something to me?” Our Hmong trekking guide asked in the hills outside of Luang Prabang, Laos. “We’ve had other trekkers on this tour who are black. Even Asian like me. Not white. But they also say they are American. How is it possible?”

He was admittedly confused. Why were the Americans he met on his tours so different than the ones he’d seen on American television shows? The show “Friends” in particular came up often in our conversation.

“You mean it’s not really like that?” He asked.

I laughed deeply inside, but focused on how to unpack a perfectly reasonable question whose answer might take the form of a book.

“Well, not really.”

I told him about the growing racial diversity in the United States, how historically it’s a country of immigrants. People moved there at first mainly from Europe, but eventually from just about everywhere on the planet. I told him that some people are rich, some are poor, and some in-between – even though our television shows may not always indicate it.

Along those dimensions, “Friends” didn’t quite represent. To the point, I mentioned that there were Hmong living in cities across the United States.

The storytelling baton then changed hands.

Our guide shed light on why this is. As he was growing up, family and friends helped him understand what happened in Laos during the Vietnam War. There were long, sustained bombing campaigns. Local Hmong were recruited by the CIA as informants and to fight against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao army. Many had to flee after the war as they faced persecution for their ties to the United States.

Although I’d heard fragments of this history before, the picture was now clearer. And, for our guide, he now understood how the whole of America didn’t match the image projected on a popular television show. That distant relatives of his who’d fled could all be “real” Americans.

It Amplifies (Iran)

“When you go home, please tell your friends the story of the real Iran, real Iranians.” If we heard this once traveling through Iran, we heard it dozens of times. We shared our experiences in conversations, on our blog, and on stages around the world. We believe that sharing these stories does make a difference.

Audrey with University Students - Isfahan, Iran
Adopted by a group of university students in Esfahan.

Likewise, just as we’ve told their stories, we imagine that some of the Iranians we've met have told ours — the stories of real Americans who visited their country and answered their questions. Take, for example, a shy, high school girl at the Shiraz market who was determined to make sense of what she'd seen on local government news.

“Do you like Islam?” she asked. “Is it safe in your country for you and your family? We see on our news there are lots of guns, but I don’t know if it’s true.”

After two-way storytelling, each party to the original conversation goes home and tells her friends and family about the interaction. Then those people tell others.

Call it amplification. Reverberation. The ripple effect.

This is the ultimate power of two-way storytelling.

It Opens Up Others to Share (Back to Bangladesh)

So, what about Shanti and the train?

I responded to Shanti’s immediate question about my relationship with my mother-in-law, one that I’m happy to report is a loving, respectful one. Beyond that, I shared a bit more about myself — my background, education, and work. I told her about when I got married and how, referring to the evolving norms and family roles in American society.

In response, Shanti told me about her current university studies and her plans to marry her fiancé after graduation. But she had concerns: “My mother-in-law seems very nice, but I don’t know if she will like it if I work.”

In Bangladesh, as in many countries in South Asia, a mother-in-law can hold significant sway on a young bride’s life. As Shanti harbored dreams of applying her university education in some professional pursuit, she was clearly worried that her future mother-in-law might have other designs for her.

To Shanti, I was a woman outside her situation and from a very different background, but one she could relate to. Out of a sense of trust, she felt safe sharing her concerns and her dreams set in the form of a question — a question about my mother-in-law.

I encouraged her. They were her dreams, after all. I suggested that although she might face resistance in pursuing them, she should at least try.

We talked for another 30 minutes until the train pulled into her station. As it did, Shanti gathered her backpack and set off for another day of classes at university. She gave me a hug and thanked me. And I thanked her.

I hope she was wiser for the interaction. I know I was.

About Audrey Scott
Audrey Scott is a writer, storyteller, speaker and tourism development consultant. She aims to help turn people's fears into curiosity and connection. She harbors an obsession for artichokes and can bake a devastating pan of brownies. You can keep up with her adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about her on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

36 thoughts on “The Power of Two-Way Storytelling”

  1. A lovely post, and a great point. Thanks for sharing these experiences and how important it is for us to share a part of ourselves in order to encourage others to open up and share as well.

  2. It is a very positive and optimistic text. I deeply appreciate your effort to get closer to people from all over the world, however, there is one serious concern. Your interlocutor needs to speak English and speak it well. In order to talk about the things you mention an English language proficiency is necessary. If the people you talk to do not speak English well enough there is a serious risk of misunderstanding. And if they speak it well they are probably not very representative group in their own society, especially in poor countries. Thus, all you do is to actually get people from all over the world to speak your own language. Convenient for you but I don’t believe it changes a thing.

    • Agata, you do bring up a very important point regarding language and misunderstandings. In some cases, I am speaking in English with people as I don’t speak the local language (e.g., Farsi, Laos, etc.). So yes, they are a minority of the population in that they do speak enough English. However, I do believe that even if they are a more educated group the theory of two-way storytelling still applies to them.

      In other cases, I am speaking the local language (e.g., Spanish, Russian, French, Czech or Estonian) so I am able to communicate with a wider group of people. That is how I was able to speak with so many people throughout the former Soviet Union (e.g., Caucasus and Central Asia) during the five months we spent there. And then, in a few cases I am with someone who can act as an informal interpreter. Of course, there can be inconsistencies there with translation.

      It’s not perfect. However, we all make do the best we can given language and other constraints to build connections and understanding.

  3. I love this Audrey. I shall use this technique next time I visit the local Saigon market and talk to the grandmothers about my age and being single 🙂

    • Ha! Although we’re married, we’ve gotten into some very interesting conversations about children with people over the years 🙂 Good luck with the grandmas on the next visit to the Saigon market!

  4. You two are amongst my very favorite storytellers, and this post encapsulates so much of why: not only are you often but a supporting character in your own stories, even when you do take the stage it’s largely to illuminate the tales that others tell. Great article, as always.

    • Aww, thank you! Your comment really means a lot as this is exactly what we hope to do with our stories and travels — to share the stories of others. A few years ago we spoke at WDS and one of the camera guys told us afterwards, “You guys were nervous at the beginning, but once you started telling the stories of the people and places you had met it all went away. That was when you were in your element.”

      Thanks again!

  5. Great post. As travellers it is the engagement, the small connections we make with people which become the most treasured memories. It’s important to remember it is a two way thing, we should give more than we expect to receive from any encounter, the experience will be so much richer for all parties involved.

    • Well said, Iain! Travelers sometimes forget that they have much they can share, and this exchange does make the whole experience all the more rich for it.

  6. Thank you, Audrey for this great reading, I enjoyed every part. That’s so true, we should use this power of interaction when on travelling to share real traditions and break stereotypes, besides those of them, developed by the political mess and propaganda in mass media.

    • Tanya, thanks for your kind comment and words. Often, we focus on travel breaking down stereotypes in the head of the traveler, but there’s such opportunity to break them down in both directions…especially as politics and popular media does its best sometimes to create more barriers and walls.

  7. Lovely post! It is right two-way get connected well. The way to release the preconceptions when traveling meet people who have different culture and traditions without any suspicion get appreciate each other. So I will going more deep to see nature, people, culture and their tradition. Thanks Audrey.

  8. Coming from India, and now living in UK, I completely relate with what you have written.
    I’m Convent educated, so I sometimes get asked even simple questions like ‘How is it you speak such good English?!’
    It’s actually funny and a great way to get to know more about the people!
    Lovely article! 🙂

    • Lavina, it’s so great that you take a question that some might feel offensive and turn it into an opportunity to share of yourself and your home country! I’m sure that you’ve had some great conversations resulting from that. Glad you enjoyed this article!

    • And we could certainly write so many other articles about India! It’s a fascinating place and one of our favorite places to travel. Never a dull moment there 🙂

  9. I cannot sufficiently express my appreciation for this article! I am an Iranian Jew born and raised in New York. I have never been to Iran, and I always believed it wasn’t safe or even possible to travel there as an American, let alone as a Jew with family who fled the country after 1979. Thank you for sharing your incredible experiences there!

    • Brooke, thank you so much for your comment and so glad that our story about Iran opened up the possibility that traveling there is indeed possible for U.S. citizens. Related, one of the interesting side trips we did during our Iran trip was a visit to the tomb of Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan with the local Rabbi showing us around. The history in this region is mind-boggling.

      If you do want more information on traveling to Iran as an American, check out this article. Happy to answer any other questions you might have!

  10. What a lovely article! I 100% agree with what you’re saying and it’s a great way to give back to the people you’re so eager to take experiences from. I also love it that you have travelled in Bangladesh. It’s my favourite country 🙂

    • Glad you enjoyed this and also happy to hear how Bangladesh is your favorite country! It’s such a hard place to describe, as it doesn’t have traditional “tourist sites” yet is such a fascinating place and filled with unusual — and often intense — experiences.

  11. What an absolutely fantastic post. Thank you so much. I cannot wait to visit some of the places you have mentioned – India and Iran especially.

  12. This is so beautiful~ Even in your writing, I feel as if I was sitting there experiencing this 2 way storytelling. You can tell how deeply it impacts you~

    Just the other day, my husband and I were talking about how there seem to be people we connect with and others we don’t and we realized it had something to do with how the conversation goes. I love that you call it 2 way storytelling. This type of conversation allows us all to engage more with each other which is so essential to understanding one another, breaking down barriers and growing!

    • Thank you, Summer, and I’m glad that this concept of two-way storytelling resonates with your own experiences. When both parties give, it opens each one up even more. And yes, we can all use more connection and understanding in the world, especially now.

  13. A beautiful text and I absolutely get the point. It is so nice to travel and to be able to learn something new from the people you meet in their countries. And at the same time give them an insight into our lifes.
    Thank you very much for this great article.

  14. I’ve found this to be one of the good features of AirBNB. Often the hosts have little experience with foreigners from far away. I’ve been places where I’m the first American or Canadian (depending on which I am for that trip) and there is a lot of interest. I’ve found my iPad with google’s satellite view to be a good tool. I spent an hour with the teenagers at an Omani AirBNB, showing them where I live in Colorado, where I’m from in Canada, etc.

    Interestingly, that same google maps show works nearly as well even with more cosmopolitan hosts. That person in Iceland may have been to “America” or “Canada”, but will always be interested in seeing the satellite view of your house and the view of the mountains on your drive into town….

    • I agree that Airbnb or home stay experiences are great for two-way storytelling. We used to carry postcards of our various home towns (e.g., San Francisco and Prague) and photos of family with us when we traveled, but now we often just show pictures on our phone. The idea of using google satellite view is great, especially as many people often just think of the U.S. as New York City, LA/Hollywood, Grand Canyon and Washington, DC.

      • In Oman it was pretty great for opening the eyes of the teenagers to the bigger world. And they are *sharp*. It took almost zero time before they were walking me around their town via satellite view, showing me where the go to school, where their various family members live, etc.


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