Memories of the self!

The first month of 2018, Masala Chai was devoted to the theme of Identity that was kicked off by Kalpana’s delightful memories of her home in Himachal in the shade of the Himalayan ranges. Through discussions, we were able to understand how and why she is so closely attached to her childhood, without being burdened by it. The culture of the hills was special in her life, and that did not raise issues of exclusion towards others. The role of our memories in creating our identity was a key learning from this blogpost. This week, we bring you a summary of a published article that addresses the significance of childhood memories in identity formation. The article compares memories of Indians and Germans about how they organise and retrieve their childhood experiences.

Autobiographical memory[1]

Our past experiences are central to who we believe we are as people. It is our social interactions and cultural experiences that lead to the formation of a sense of who we are. These personal experiences take place within a cultural context that has specific conceptions of personhood which influence, and also contribute to a dynamic, interactive co-creation of identity and culture. Thus, our conceptions of who we are is constructed through our personal experiences and social patterns around us. When we hear people telling us stories about ourselves as children, episodes are selected that are guided by popular themes. This framing of the conversations we hear becomes the channel through which information about ourselves configures our thinking.

We do not simply become copies of what other people tell us about ourselves. Alongside, the human mind is also reconfiguring this information every day. Additionally, the data and feedback we receive from different people varies, and that has also to be reconciled with. Some people may think about us with affection and thereby provide feedback with that in mind. Others who may bear resentment will offer other sorts of responses. This wide range of information must be prioritized, sorted and reorganized to make up a sense of self. With every new encounter, we react, respond or ignore, until we gain a reasonably stable, but always a responsive sense of self under normal circumstances. What and how we react to others is also constructed around cultural themes. If for some reason there are disturbances in the course of identity development, other consequences can ensue, but we will not go into that here. Furthermore, immigration within and between cultures can also create challenges for identity development and that is something we will deal with in the coming month.

Language of the self and selfies

Another important mediating factor is language. Language practices as well as conversational patterns also differ between families, communities, cultures and languages. For instance, among many traditional communities in different parts of the world, the individual person does not necessarily receive critical focus, and a greater emphasis is placed on roles and relationships. By and large, among technologically advanced, wealthier nations, individual characteristics and temperament have been found to receive greater attention and discussions about individual competence are more frequent. There are other, more advanced ways in which the language differs in different communities that is relevant to our discussion, but we will not go into that here.

The language used by a community is based in the social-historical contexts, and conversations are thus packed with cultural information as many philosophical and anthropological texts have shown. The intricate linkages of our stories about ourselves with our individual and collective history becomes key to understanding our place in the world. For example, recent studies on the construction of memories show that American adults are more likely to report unique, specific, self-focused, and emotionally elaborate memories and place emphasis on individual features in describing themselves. In contrast, Chinese adults provide memories centering on group activities, general routines, and place great emphasis on social interactions and significant others; they also include a great number of social roles in their self-descriptions. The latter is not unlike our findings among Indian adolescents who typically describe themselves in relational terms. In fact, other people are so closely connected with one’s identity in traditional communities that individual names are subordinated to kin-terms as forms of identification and address. Thus, the way we talk about ourselves and the way in which we present ourselves has different emphases in different cultures.

Social changes and global influences create further complexity in the experiences people have as the range of influences on us expands. For instance, the intense and constant feedback that youngsters seek through social media will have inevitably impact the ways in which the self is configured.

Conversations with children

One of the key factors in social exchanges are the conversations that adults have with children, as mentioned earlier. Our beliefs about ourselves are mediated through what we hear; and what we hear is guided by themes around us. Thus, when adults talk to children, they are also providing them with models of how to talk and more specifically, how to talk about themselves. Children develop their conversational style around what they hear, and this influences they ways in which they understand and speak about themselves. When parents from different cultural groups are heard telling stories to young children, it has been found that stories are told differently by different people and cultural patterns can be discerned. In one study, Indian mothers were found to tell longer stories with more evaluations and responses to children’s questions[2]. Relational themes were more emphasized by Indian mothers in comparison with American mothers. When such patterns are repeated, it becomes a significant influence on the child’s idea about herself.

The article

In this study, the following questions were addressed to adult Indians and Germans.

  1. Describe yourself as a child in whatever way you can recall.
  2. Who were some of the significant people from your childhood and what do you remember about them?
  3. Describe any significant event from your childhood, with an approximate age.
  4. Is there any story that you remember your parents telling about you repeatedly to others? Describe please.
  5. Were there any special objects, playthings, personal items that you can remember that you really liked as a child?

The findings of the study showed that there were clear differences in the ways in which Germans and Indians remembered and talked about their childhood memories. Although both groups talked about other people as well as themselves, a somewhat greater tendency to mention oneself was seen among the German group and a comparatively greater mention of others among Indians. Furthermore, Indians were more self-evaluative (I was naughty, or I used to create a lot of trouble in drinking milk, see more examples below) whereas Germans described themselves using more neutral expressions. Indians had a greater tendency to mention others in the following way “My mother used to say that…..” showing that evaluations about the self were drawn from memories about what others said about you. German adults described themselves more in terms of assertiveness and personal interests under the theme of self-enhancement.

Parents, especially mothers were said to play a significant role in childhood in both groups. In the Indian group, however, other caregivers such as helpers and teachers were also mentioned often. Influences of others was discussed by German participants using a more self-enhancement-oriented (availability for me/support and interest in me) approach whereas the Indians in the study showed a more socio-centered (sharing life with others) and norm-oriented approach (others serving as role model). This pattern is found again when looking at the story about oneself. The stories in the German group revolved around topics of unexpected assertiveness and autonomy whereas the stories in the Indian group mentioned more about child-like behavior, child-like logic and mistakes that contributed to some amusement during the conversations.

These overall patterns were also found in the accounts of the mothers when they were approached for the study, which leads us to suggest that the stories that are told and retold to children do reflect broader cultural models of how to conceive of the self and obviously serve to mediate these cultural patterns to the next generation. Taken together, the findings of this study suggest that self-remembering is strongly informed by broader cultural models of how to conceive of the self and that identity is closely linked to cultural context.

Some examples:


About the self

“I was an easy and ever smiling child…..”

“……polite, never used to cry…”

“I was not such a fussy child in relation to food. I ate whatever I got”

“I was not naughty at all ….”

“A quiet child, moderately naughty and obedient…”

“I was a very naughty child…”

“I used to obey my parents in most cases”

“I was an obedient and a sincere boy”

“I have never been stubborn or a ‘cry baby’. I don’t remember my parents scolding me at any time”

About others:

“….used to live with them…”

“….always around/ pleasure to have around”

“…..provider of basic needs”

“……what I have or am is because of them”

“… direction to my life”


“Learned addition in school. Came home and told mom. She helped me with it, so I was surprised and said, “aapko bhi aata hai, mujhe laga sirf maam ko aata hai (you also know, I thought only my teacher knows)”

“There like lots of them. But one told repeatedly is that I used to play with any string like thing as a baby. I would hold one end of a string in one hand and pull it with the other one. All the while that I would pull it till I would reach the end I would make a ‘cooing’ sound. So once I was taken to a Chinese restaurant. And I started playing with noodles just like that.”


About the self:

“…..very lively, boldfaced and often a little bit cheeky child that liked to be in the focus of attention”

“I was very active and sporty […] liked it when friends of my parents visited us, when something was going on”

“…liked to be in the focus of attention and tried to have my way accepted by everybody”

“…….spoke a lot, busy at school, active, tight schedule = dislike of boredom, cheeky/a know-it-all”

“…at home I was lively, talked a lot“ and played a lot”

About others:

“..were always there for me”

“..was there every time when I needed her”

“..‘dealt‘ with me”

“supported me”

“caring and interested [in me]”


“There are many stories! I especially remember the first trip that my daughter did on her own at the age of 8 years. She had wanted to participate in a 2-week vacation at a riding stable 200 km away from home. Out of fear that she might not be able to manage to stay there alone, I delayed to say goodbye to her until she eventually told me to go home with the words:” You can go home now, I have my horse to take care of now!“ This showed me for the first time that she has a very strong will and that she will get through everything she has decided to do. Although she was a born preterm and needed intensive care, she became independent at a very early age.”

“At the Christmas party of the shooting club (“Schützenverein”) children usually recite poems or sing songs which are then honored with a little present from Santa Claus. But these “performances” are arranged with the parents beforehand. When asked whether someone wants to perform something, I suddenly lifted my hand although this was not agreed on with my parents before, swaggered up front and recited a poem.”

Link for image:

[1] Memories of me: Comparisons from Osnabrueck (Germany) and Delhi (India) Students and Their Mothers. By Carlin Demuth, Nandita Chaudhary and Heidi Keller.


[2] Harkins, D. A., & Ray, S. (2004). An exploratory study of mother-child storytelling in east India and Northeast United States. Narrative Inquiry, 14(2), 347-367.


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