Six years ago, I made an exploratory trip to Oklahoma; I was considering moving from my home in Boston.
The first place I stopped was at a grocery store. Leaving it, I found myself in a short line of people waiting to go out the automatic door. To my dismay, we were moving very slowly.
I was impatient. After all, I had a lot of Oklahoma to explore!
I looked at the woman ahead of me, patiently pushing her shopping cart. From behind, she looked like she was in her mid-thirties and able-bodied. Her shoulders and her posture didn’t suggest that she was in a hurry. She didn’t even look frustrated by whatever it was in front of her that was making us go so slowly.
So I stepped to the side and looked over her shoulder, to see what was causing the delay. I saw an old man, bent over his cane, inching along. We were going so slowly, I realized, because he NEEDED to go slowly.
I thought to myself, “This young woman is quite happy to give this old man exactly what he needs: lots of time!”
This was my first realization that Oklahoma differs from my experience of the East Coast. Back in Massachusetts, I had unconsciously come to expect that people should do everything they can to “keep up” with others. If someone needed more time, space, or assistance than someone else, it was that person’s job to accommodate to everyone else.
In Oklahoma, though, if people need something, the others expect to give it to them.
This attitude – along with several others prevalent in Oklahoma – has subtly changed me as a teller. Why is this on my mind now? Because my years here are about to end.
Farewell to Oklahoma
My wife, Pam McGrath, has accepted a job as a sole pastor in a church in Marshfield, Massachusetts. In early July, we will move 1700 miles east.
We are eager to go Massachusetts, but we are also sad to leave Oklahoma. As a tribute to the state that has taught me so much these last four and a half years, in this article and the next I will share seven lessons for life and storytelling that I’ve been blessed to learn here.
Lesson 1: Give People What They Need
If a stranger can give an old man the time he needs to walk, I can certainly try to give my audiences what THEY need. This means that I should consider my listeners’ needs first when I choose:
- The story to tell them;
- How much background information to offer them;
- The style and language in which I tell the story.
But I can also give MYSELF what I need, in order to offer the story. After all, even the airlines tell us to secure our own oxygen masks first, before trying to help others.
So, as long as it doesn’t prevent my listeners from getting what they need, I can ask for whatever I need, including:
- A sufficiently quiet and well-lighted environment;
- The time and place to prepare myself before I tell;
- A chance to catch my breath, get a drink of water, and meet my physical and psychological needs as I tell.
Some of you may always do all that, but I can think of times when I failed to ask for each of those. My storytelling always suffered as a result.
Lesson 2: Expect and Be Open to Connections
Soon after I moved to Oklahoma, I needed repairs to the fence in my back yard. So I got the phone number of a recommended handyman and called him. He agreed to come over and look at my fence. Sure enough, we agreed on a price, he did the work, and I handed him a check.
But he didn’t just take the check and leave. Instead, he stood there looking absently at the back of his hand.
“You know,” he said after a moment, “I used to have a job as a sales executive. It was so stressful! At the end of a day, I never really knew if I had done a good job.
“After ten years, I decided to give it up. I took a huge paycut to become a handyman. Am I sorry?” He looked at me and continued. “No,” he said, “it’s very satisfying to me when I can do a job like this, do it at my own pace and see the result for someone like you.”
When he left, I realized that what was unusual about this encounter wasn’t just his story. It wasn’t that he wanted to be listened to. It was that he really expected to connect with me.
Most people here – from cashiers to letter carriers – expect every interaction to become a connection. They’re not bent out of shape if you don’t connect with them, but they are open to it and want to feel that our interaction has brought us closer.
How does this affect storytelling?
Well, as tellers, we can have a tendency to view ourselves as “performers.” But we’re not really in the performance business; we’re in the relationship business.
Our primary job is not to “wow” an audience. Our job is not to “blow them away.” Our job is not even to “perform” for them. Our job is simply to connect to them, in such a way that they’ll connect to the story we tell.
If I focus on being open to connection with my audience, a certain magic tends to happen. First, I offer myself to them more openly. Second, if they respond, I tend to respond more quickly and genuinely to their response.
Third, I don’t get urgent about getting a particular response from them. After all, I’m just offering a connection through the story. I’m not forcing it on them.
If I am just present, ready to connect to them and expecting it but not insisting on it, then everything else I do as a teller goes more easily.
Lesson 3: Wait Placidly
I already mentioned the woman in the supermarket not showing any signs of impatience.
On the East Coast, I would expect the woman waiting for the old man to tap her feet or look around as though to say, “What’s going on here?” Or even to check her watch.
But here in Oklahoma, people seem to wait without getting agitated.
I’m an informal student of body language. But again and again, I have watched people here standing placidly – and haven’t been able to tell that they were waiting for me.
What this tells me about storytelling is that there’s a magic in standing there looking like I am having a grand time.
Suppose that, even before I say a word at the start of a performance, I look like I’m in a hurry. In that case, I create a sense that we have to get on with things, that I will be hurrying us along.
But when I stand there completely in the moment, completely enjoying whatever there is to enjoy, I become an object of fascination. It is wonderful to see someone standing placidly, patiently delighted.
And if I can make that be my habitual stance – instead a stance of wanting something or trying to make something happen – then I become a different kind of guide through the storytelling experience: the guide who is both trusted and enjoyed.
(For more on the lessons of placid waiting, see my 2005 article at http://www.storydynamics.com/tulsa).
Lesson 4: Let Others Shine
On one of my first visits back to Boston after living in Oklahoma for several months, I noticed a kind of tension in my stomach when talking to new people. It was a familiar tension, but one that I hadn’t felt much since moving to Oklahoma.
I realized that this is the tension that comes when I’m meeting someone who is trying to show me that they are smarter, more powerful, or otherwise have some higher status than I do.
In thinking about it, I realized that in Oklahoma, by and large, people don’t so often make the little gambits that establish their place in the pecking order.
After a few months here, I found myself relaxing in a new way. But I only noticed that relaxation when I returned to my old circle and began experiencing once more the tension that comes with the “status dance.”
As a storyteller, if I am unconsciously projecting to my audience that I want to establish that I am smarter or more charming or in any way “one up” from them, I demand too much of them.
It shouldn’t be necessary that they grant me higher status, just to enjoy my story.
Instead, I can decide, unilaterally, that we get to be equals. I can take the attitude that “you are just wonderful, all you people there. Yeah, I’m fine, but what I notice is that you are fine, too, and that I am open to and respectful of you.”
In that case,, this act of storytelling will be between equals, and we can equally share its delight.
(Next month, I’ll continue this article with three more Oklahoma lessons for storytellers.)