The story of us

How our culture shapes the stories we tell

Gabriel García Márquez’s celebrated novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, tells the story of the Buendía family and the fictional Colombian town of Macondo. It’s a story about love, war, colonialism, and history repeating itself. In the novel, this theme is quite literal: Past characters reappear as ghosts, family names are repeated, and García Márquez plays with the constraints of time. We are never quite in the present, past, or future – all perspectives seem to exist at once. This tone is apparent in the first line of the novel:

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a prominent example of magical realism, a genre of storytelling that folds magical elements into a realistic, modern world. This genre, which is associated with Latin American literature, may lend itself more easily to some cultures than others. For example, the novel’s presentation of time as cyclical is partly a literary mechanism, but it may also be a cultural trait. 

Social psychologist Robert Levine wrote that no set of cultural beliefs “are more ingrained and subsequently hidden than those about time.” Some cultures think of time as future-oriented or linear, with a distinct past, present, and future. But many cultures in Eastern Europe and Latin America tend to view time more fluidly, with the past and future blending into the present, according to a 2017 study. And these cultural orientations of time are often reflected in stories, the way they are in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

You can learn a lot about a culture from the stories it tells. In the United States, you can find the imprint of what psychologist Ryan Brown calls honor culture in much of our entertainment, from John Wayne westerns to the TV series Outlander.

“Honor cultures are societies that put the defense of reputation at the center of social life,” Brown says. “They create a set of scripts or demands for how you should respond when your reputation is at risk.” Honor culture is prevalent in the American South and West, but it’s also widespread in many other cultures around the world. Its narrative, particularly for men, focuses on bravery, loyalty, and an aggressive response to reputational threats — even if such a response leads to retribution and bloodshed.

These “scripts,” as Brown calls them, are so deeply embedded in our day-to-day lives that we may not even recognize them as such. We know stories can shape our culture, but our cultural narratives can also shape the stories we tell. García Márquez summed up this relationship in a 1988 interview with the New York Times. He said, “I think my books have had political impact in Latin America because they help to create a Latin American identity; they help Latin Americans to become more aware of their culture.”

ON THE PODCAST

March 29: Stories have the power to give meaning to the world and help us connect with others. They also shape our cultural narrative. This week, we’ll delve into what researchers refer to as “honor culture” — and how the values embedded in this culture shapes the lives of millions of people. 

April 5: What would happen if we never lied to ourselves ever again? We assume we’d be happier and live more productive lives. But researchers increasingly find that some self-deception may be good for us. This week, we bring you an episode of the public radio program “Think,” in which Shankar talks with host Krys Boyd about his new book, Useful Delusions.

April 12: Why is humor in short supply in many of our lives? This week, we explore the psychological effects of humor, and why so many of us fall off a “humor cliff” as we become adults. Plus, why indulging in a joke can be a powerful way to unlock creativity and productivity.

FROM THE TWITTERATI

WE ASKED…

“Brain imaging studies find that getting absorbed in a deeply moving film or novel can activate the same emotional systems we use in the real world. So when a beloved character dies in a story, the tears we shed are real. What’s your favorite movie or novel to get lost in?”

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