Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai On Promoting Tolerance Through Storytelling, Listening | Vietcetera
Billboard banner
Apr 05, 2024

Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai On Promoting Tolerance Through Storytelling, Listening

According to Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai, while the suffering of past generations may not be visible in our current surroundings, it persists within an unexpected realm: our biological bodies.
Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai On Promoting Tolerance Through Storytelling, Listening

Source: Bobby Vu for Vietcetera

Associate Professor Nguyễn Phương Mai, PhD, is well-known among Vietcetera’s readers. She often appears on the ‘Have A Sip’ podcast and writes articles for Vietcetera and other media platforms.

Dr. Phương Mai recently returned to the ‘Have A Sip’ podcast for the third time. Despite this, her talks with host Thuy Minh were always interesting, with new and captivating stories.

Continuing from the last episode’s discussion on pressure and happiness, Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai and host Thuy Minh discussed storytelling in today’s media. They explored how storytelling and listening can help address the lasting pain in many communities.

Storytelling plays an important role in human evolution

According to Dr. Phương Mai, storytelling plays a vital role in human evolution because it is a form of exchanging and accumulating knowledge through the stories or experiences of other individuals.

Dr. Phương Mai highlights the significant role of storytelling in human evolution. She suggests that it serves as a means of exchanging and accumulating knowledge through the experiences shared in stories.

This aspect distinguishes humans as highly capable beings, as the accumulated knowledge enables them to surpass limitations imposed by their biological traits. For instance, despite lacking wings, humans can construct airplanes, and despite the absence of fins or gills, they can create ships and submarines for transportation on or under water.

Host Thuy Minh and our guest Dr. Nguyễn Phương Mai | Source: Bobby Vu for Vietcetera

Storytelling can enhance human communication, drawing from her studies in communication, cross-cultural management, and neuroscience, as well as her practical experience writing and presenting reports at previous events.

In her view, whether it’s writing for a newspaper or conducting scientific research, it boils down to storytelling. Both endeavors aim to captivate the reader’s interest by narrating a compelling story. She believes that content lacking narrative elements, consisting solely of raw information or bullet points, fails to engage the audience effectively.

When presenting information solely through numbers and data, the brain’s language-related areas are activated. However, when information is shared through storytelling, the entire brain becomes engaged. The act of storytelling immerses the listener in the narrative, triggering the secretion of neurons or hormones as if they were actively participating in the story.

Be careful amid a wealth of data

Based on her observations regarding the significance of storytelling and information sharing, Dr. Phương Mai concludes, “A storyteller is someone who transforms their narrative into the listener’s own story within their mind.”

While this statement holds true, it addresses only one aspect. While we may attract individuals to listen to our story, ensuring they remain engaged throughout is equally essential. Merely listening to a story and actively paying attention to its details represent distinct actions.

Source: Bobby Vu for Vietcetera

Hence, a good storyteller can command the attention of their audience. However, in an era dominated by brief content and incessantly updated news, maintaining focus becomes challenging. Moreover, there’s a risk of focusing on inaccurate information, which can result in skewed perspectives or conclusions.

Dr. Phương Mai suggests that humans often seek details that align with their existing beliefs, a phenomenon called confirmation bias. Conversely, the brain instinctively seeks to establish meaningful patterns, connecting disparate details to construct a coherent framework, thereby simplifying the world’s complexities.

Hence, our interpretation of the universe and the world may not always align with reality; rather, it often reflects our brain’s tendency to connect disparate pieces of information. To mitigate our inherent biases, we must introspect our emotions and experiences, critically evaluate how we acquire knowledge, and seek common ground between the world and our perception of it.

Storytelling as a method of dialogue and reconciliation

Upon introspecting our emotions, experiences, and memories, we can discern the lingering echoes of pain inherited from past generations. These unresolved conflicts are reminiscent of long-forgotten wars, whose repercussions continue to reverberate into the present.

Dr. Phương Mai points to numerous studies indicating that the traumatic experiences endured by a community in one generation can imprint biological changes in the functioning of the genome for subsequent generations.

For example, researchers who examined the genomes of descendants of starvation or slavery survivors discovered that their genetic functioning continues in a state similar to survival mode, long after the historical obstacles have passed.

Source: Bobby Vu for Vietcetera

Dr. Phương Mai suggests that this could be one of several reasons why people in general, and Vietnamese people specifically, experience feelings of anxiety, a compulsion to respond to oppression with resistance, and a tendency to perceive others as adversaries while portraying themselves as victims.

To address this psychological issue, we need to examine both our own pain and that of others. By actively listening to each other, we can gain insight into how our individual stories, as well as those of others, contribute to the broader context. This understanding enables us to foster tolerance and meaningful relationships with others.

Dr. Phương Mai cited a single example—the national reconciliation project in Rwanda—where ethnic conflicts resulted in horrifying atrocities. In a span of approximately 100 days, nearly 1 million people lost their lives in brutal ways.

So how do we address that pain? They facilitated discussions between both sides, encouraging them to share their stories. Through this process, they traced the lineage of genetic harm—a history overshadowed by Belgian colonial rule, marked by the division of communities and the propagation of animosity.

As both the victim and the perpetrator voice their experiences, each side’s narrative resonates with the other, fostering a more compassionate approach to problem-solving. Through this process, they come to terms with and forgive past grievances, extending forgiveness to one another. This approach also fosters the development of shared narratives within the community, supplanting individual stories to forge a collective identity.

Translated by Thúy An

Watch the full episode here