Anecdote on Anecdotes

In a round of table introductions last week the organizer asked everyone to give their names, some information relevant the topic at hand, and an anecdote. I froze. An anecdote about what?

I use the word anecdote or some form of it, e.g. anecdotally, often. I tell a lot of stories. Everyone tells stories. I could argue that most, if not everything we say, is a story. An anecdote is a story. This essay is a story. All I had to do was come up with a story, but I couldn’t. Why?

An anecdote isn’t just any story. It’s a particular kind of story. It’s a story that tells a story; an observation or experience that informs a greater pattern or tendency. A story is only an anecdote if it has a point. We extrapolate from anecdotes.

When we speak of anecdotal evidence, we’re referring to corroboration of an argument from a single or few observations. Implicit in using the word anecdote is that an anecdote is a lesser form of proof. We draw a distinction between anecdotal evidence and regular evidence because anecdotes are inherently less reliable. We shouldn’t trust anecdotes. But we do.

Perhaps coming up with anecdote on the fly was difficult because it felt so haphazard. I really needed a more specific prompt. The way I treat anecdotes, they have so much meaning and weight. I was asked so casually to recall something meaningful.

It felt a bit incongruent and in this case I really did struggle to recall anything at all. Perhaps a more specific prompt, like “share an anecdote on love or perseverance,” would have more effectively stirred my mind. On the actual prompt I was given, “anecdote: any,” nada. But, thinking about anecdotes made me realize how important anecdotes are to me.

I use anecdotes all the time. Many of these essays I write are just riffs on anecdotes. I learn through anecdotes and I teach through anecdotes. Perhaps this isn’t unusual. I love to let stories speak for me. A good anecdote speaks for itself.

Today I shared an anecdote about how many of my hispanic students were vocal Republicans, disproportionately so amongst the top students I taught many years ago. That struck me when I noticed it, and strikes others when I tell them about it. Notice how I don’t need to explain my point. You already know it.

Last week, I shared an anecdote about teenage pregnancy. Most of the people I know have never been around a pregnant teenager. In the years when I around them regularly, I was struck by how quickly young moms would recover after giving birth. In one case a girl who had been pregnant the day before was in school the next day showing off pictures of her newborn baby. These young girls were literally running around days after giving birth. I also know many moms around my age and their experiences are quite different. I’m going to ask you not to read too much into this, but you’ve probably already read into it.

Some people take offense at the example above, though I offer it with no intention. I believe nothing based on it, and take no learnings or generalizations from it, but it’s clearly thought provoking anecdote. In a way it’s a dangerous anecdote because others can fill in the blanks of intention when the anecdote itself speaks more loudly than its teller. That is how powerful an anecdote can be.

The anecdotes I value, like the humor on jesters and parables of priests, reveal complex realities. The world isn’t simple and I tend to be struck by the moments that show that. Many of the anecdotes I share are this nature and confuse people.

Sometimes, when the anecdotes may have political implications, I manage to offend leftist and rightist people at the same time with the exact same anecdote. That reminds me of how people on the right will watch political humor and believe the comedian is no their side, and people on the right will watch the same show and believe the comedian is on their side. Though I am often amused by these quirks of human psychology, I appreciate that anecdotes can move people, for better or worse. As such, I don’t take my anecdotes lightly. Others shouldn’t either.

Anecdotes are powerful but we must be careful with them. It’s too easy to mislead ourselves and maybe even easier to mislead others. After my recent trip to India I shared an anecdote about how people at a hotel in one state were particularly unfriendly. I concluded that people in that state just aren’t that friendly, and others I have relayed that anecdote to others who now probably also believe that. But in considering it it’s probably not true. I probably just happened ran into some unfriendly people. Back to that event last week.

When my turn came, I asked the organizer he could come back to me at the end. The others went around and when time came for them to share their anecdotes, most of them shared random stories with no particular point or observation. I think people are better at identifying than generating anecdotes. By the end he forgot about me. I guess you can’t force an anecdote.

I couldn’t think of any pictures relevant to this topic, so here’s a definition. I don’t like when writing pieces open with definitions as it comes off rather elementary, so I’m closing with one. What I miss from this in my definition is the amusing, lighter side of anecdotes. Perhaps I just gravitate to the heavy.



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