Interview with Jonathan Groubert

This interview is based on the story Kawfee.
We recommend you read the story first!

“My dad sort of retreated from life at an early age. I think he was a disappointed man at a certain point.”

Interview by Barbara van den Bogaard

Reading your story can you tell me more about your father?

My dad sort of retreated from life at an early age. I think he was a disappointed man at a certain point. Which is sad because men tend to measure themselves and their success in life by money and if you have to sort of measure him by that standard, he was a failure because he was not great at making money. He had real trouble keeping jobs throughout his life. He retreated to his room, watching TV, smoking cigarettes and drinking huge amounts of instant coffee.

But here’s the thing… I have to say this very quickly; if you’re measuring him in terms of what kind of a person he was as a father, he was very loving and very sweet and thoughtful and kind. In that sense he was a successful man. And in particular my sister’s friends would come over and they’d always talk about how much they would love to have had him as a father because he was so much nicer as their fathers.

I think it is sad that his sweetness has had no career value. That your father measured his self-esteem not by his fatherhood but by his failures in business…

That’s really what it was in the end and I have a sneaking suspicion that my mom didn’t make his life any easier because their lives were made very insecure by the fact that he had a lot of trouble keeping a steady income. There was a period in my childhood when we were just a couple of months from the street in terms of rent. There was a moment when he had got fired from a pretty good job and he didn’t tell us for like three months. One day he sat us all down and told us. My mom was like; “Yeah, but you go out every day what…” And he said; “I’ve been selling things on the streets in Manhattan and in Chinatown…” I went out with him one day in the middle of the winter and I found out that he lived a pretty tough life.

I’ve had periods where I’ve gone through a significant amount of my savings. Things looked a little scary then and I was a grumpy person, I can tell you that. It was a blow to my self-esteem. It’s had a lifelong effect. My father died in two thousand two, the same year that my first son was born. I was thirty-five. My mother recently died but I’m not an orphan because I’m too old to be an orphan. I must say its nuts though. It is completely weird. How can it be that these people that raised me and were always there, one day weren’t anymore?

“When I go somewhere and I am not convinced that I will not be a dick that night, I better not come.”

So can you tell me more about who you are?

Anybody who knows me and is reading this would be very surprised to hear that I’m a shy person because I am absolutely an extrovert but like most extroverts it’s a defence mechanism. The more extroverted I’d become the more insecure I feel. My mother was exactly the same way. The more jokes she was telling – she was a very funny lady – the more she was trying to cover up her real emotions and I absolutely got that from her.

I’m one of these people who if I’m not feeling good about myself I can better not go to a party. If I don’t like the way I looked in the mirror that morning and I feel that it’s affected my mood I should probably better stay at home and watch a movie because I feel like I’ll be a nervous wreck and act like a dick. I got better at it because I’m more aware of it. But when I go somewhere and I am not convinced that I will not be a dick that night, I better not come.

You are a journalist and storytellers. What got you interested in stories and storytelling?

We journalists and very often we storytellers, can be rather arrogant in the sense that we say; “Well I’m going to put this out there and this is the way I do things and if you don’t like it or you do not agree, well obviously you’re not as intelligent as I am or as smart as I am or as sophisticated as I am.” This will not work.

I teach storytelling to journalists and I talk about the inverted pyramid. We journalists use the inverted pyramid to write articlesAt the top of the article, you put your information that answers the five W’s and one H: who, what, where, when, why, and how. All that stuff is on the top two paragraphs and everything that comes below is less important. So, a reader gets less relevant information the further you get in the article. And then we ask ourselves: “why do people never finish reading a news article?” Well, all the relevant, important and interesting stuff is all the way at the top! The story just gets more boring as you read further, so why would you do that? 

“If I don’t understand why something matters, why should I care about it?”

The thing is the inverted pyramid is a relatively new construct. It’s only been around since the middle of the nineteenth centuryFor the previous one hundred thousand years, human beings shared information in the form of a narrative, a story. So, we are hard wired, we evolved as creatures at some point a hundred thousand years ago sitting somewhere around a fire in the Savannah, in the middle of nowhere sharing extremely important information that may determine if you were going to survive another day. This was our advantage over animals that were stronger and bigger and had sharper teeth and claws.

When we started recording history, we also started to immediately tell stories. It turns out that this is the best way to share information to get people to care about things. If I don’t understand why something matters, why should I care about it?

So if I connect this to Global Storytellers, a community that you are part of, do you think there exists something that we might call a Global Story?

Yes I do. A good story always works because there’s literally no difference between yourself and any other human being anywhere on the planet I’ve travelled all around the world these last few years. One thing that I’ve noticed is how similar everyone is and how much we have in common. We all care about basic needs like enough food, love and being loved, the need to feel useful, the need to feel secure. If you take away any of those elements, we become nasty little animals again. That’s the same anywhere you go in the world. 

“The upside of the Internet is that we have this worldwide water cooler that we can all sort of stand around and talk.”

Human beings, as a species, are immensely successful. I mean look at us.  We went from a population of  not particularly strong creatures to being the dominant species on the planet.  One of the ways that we did this was through competition with each other and constant war, which has brought us to the brink of annihilation. And this threat will still be there tomorrow because our desire to compete and to see our differences rather than our similarities. Many people are rather parochial. In other words, they only understand the world they come from and think that anything that comes outside of their world requires explanation. This creates fear of the other.

As a global community, how do we stop making assumptions? How do we stop focusing on those things that separate us rather than the things that we have in common?

I think we’re in the process of doing that. The question is, will we survive it? The Internet is making a massive difference. This younger generation of people, of Internet savvy people, are starting to create a kind of a global culture. There probably is a gulf between those of us who grew up without Internet – and I’m one of those people – and those who grew up with it. Those who grew up with it see a world in which people really are communicating and competing globally. The point is, if we’re all sharing the same system with everyone on the planet, then the upside is that we have this worldwide water cooler that we can all sort of stand around and “talk”. 

China has decided to put down their own water cooler and have a little conversation to which you’re not invited. So, we have to see how that works out. In my opinion, this is the one thing that could really stop this “inevitable” process of true globalization.

So you are hopeful?

Yes. I’m also not naïve. I see the scary downsides to this. But I also see that there are wonderful things going on. I hope one day we will be more interested in the upside. That will be a great challenge because storytelling and news are often focussed on the negative. The news is pretty democratic though. It gives us what we want and not the other way around. This iswhy I think, when we tell stories, it’s a much healthier way of receiving information. But I believe that we do get what we ask for. We cannot blame news organizations. s organizations.

Next Stories