Reflecting on Movember, Karten Design Designer Jonathan Abarbanel discusses the role of storytelling in men’s health.
Karten Design just finished up a successful Movember. By growing mustaches for a month, 10 of our men used their faces to start conversations about men’s health and raise almost $1,000 dollars to fund men’s health research and education.
We’ve had a lot of conversations in our studio during Movember. Most were about mustaches, but a few were about larger issues of health. I wonder, as Movember turns into December and most of the men at Karten Design shave their Mo-staches, what the experiences and conversations have meant to those of us who participated.
Last week I sat down with our Movember Team Captain Jonathan Abarbanel to get his point of view. A father of two young children and the husband of a children’s librarian, Jonathan is something of an expert at storytelling. Recently, Jonathan took a class in Narrative and Digital Media at UCLA Extension, and it’s made him think about the role that stories play in our everyday lives. He believes that stories are all around us, and we uncover new stories by doing new things. I asked Jonathan what sorts of stories he’s found in Movember.
Can stories change our behavior? If so, in what ways?
We all have personal narratives. It’s this subconscious image of who you are as a “character,” and it becomes your mental framework for remembering and making sense of events. People selectively remember or forget events that reinforce the self image they hold. These stories are incredibly powerful. If you have a certain image of what challenges you seek out, who you are as an individual and how you respond to challenge, it will change your behavior.
What kinds of stories might be most useful when it comes to health?
I remember when Tom Green was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He was a comedian with a reputation for shock humor, and his testicular cancer turned out to be weirdly appropriate material. He did a comedy special that detailed his experience with testicular cancer in “dude language” with Bevis and Butthead-style humor. This language really resonated with a young audience that might not have thought about their health. I think the most useful stories are frank, plain-spoken, and authentic.
Do you think there are any stories or methods that appeal more to men?
When men talk among themselves, their conversations are action-based, not feeling-based. I think that’s what’s missing in the health conversation. Traditional men’s health discussions focus on things like body building and exercise. Now there’s a growing movement in wellness and emotional health, but so far it has not taken a male-centric point of view. It’s considered un-masculine to even talk about wellness or emotional balance! As much as I would like to think I’m not a typical guy, I don’t talk about health with my dad or my two brothers. The closest we come to talking about health is re-hashing the story of my grandpa—my dad’s dad—who lived to be 96. He had a set routine. He would wake up at 5 in the morning and swim laps. His mantra for life as well as health was “everything in moderation.” In our culture, that’s how “real” men talk. It’s action based.
The Movember website advises people to know their family health history: “Start a discussion with your relatives about the health issues they’ve had in the past. Be sure to learn about relatives that are deceased too.” Do you know your family health history? How does this influence how you perceive your story?
I know that I have a family history of diabetes, cancer, and high cholesterol. It’s one thing to know the conditions that run in your family. It’s quite another to turn unemotional data into something that has resonance and spurs action—a story that’s personal and detailed. My dad could tell me about going to visit his Aunt Beatrice in the rest home and how she had no legs because she lost them to diabetes. When you get such visceral details, presented in the context of an experiential story, you start to realize, hey, that could be me. I don’t want that to happen to me.
But we don’t often tell these types of stories. For me, it’s less about specific stories and more about altering the underlying culture that prevents people—men in particular—from sharing their stories. Maybe it’s a good thing that there are shows like Men of a Certain Age that depict men talking about their health, or even all of the commercials about erectile dysfunction. Even if they don’t ring true in our culture today, I guess I see them as aspirational. They set up a new model for interaction and chip away at taboos. I think professional storytellers should look for more ways to integrate health into our every-day conversations, whether it’s comedy routines or television shows. Maybe it will eventually filter down into the ways that friends and families talk to each other.