Why We Tell Stories

Why do we tell stories? Why do we want to listen to stories? Both the telling and the listening are fundamental human acts. Even prelingual babies love to listen to stories and from a young age, we want to recount the tale of our lives to those who will listen. In fact, we know that babies and young children who are read to long before they can talk or read themselves, grow up with a richer vocabulary than children who do not have those kinds of interactions. So storytelling and story-hearing must be intrinsic to being human.

Researchers posit that storytelling is one way to reinforce social norms and behaviors. In a study that looked at the storytelling habits of four contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, the vast majority of the stories served to reinforce the kinds of cooperative behaviors that their societies depended on for continued existence.

What do our stories tell our families? When my mother or grandmother tells me stories of their youth and childhood, they pass on a sense of rootedness, a chain of belonging. They tell me stories of survival -- some funny, some serious. They pass on their own ethics and beliefs about how best to live. Their stories ensure the continuation of their existence, even when that existence ceases to exist outside the story itself.