The fine art of oral storytelling is becoming less and less common in the modern era. Certainly everyone tells stories over the dinner table or to their friends, but full-fledged oral traditions are rare. As a result, many people don't have a good sense of manners when dealing with a storyteller. Here are some key points to keep in mind, to make sure that everyone else also enjoys the tale, and to keep the storyteller from coming after you later.

Of course, there are situations in which these rules don't apply. Use your best judgment, and a hefty dose of common sense. The best rule of thumb, however, is simply to ask: "If I were telling this story, how would I appreciate someone doing this?" The storytellers will appreciate your courtesy.
For the storyteller:

Though storytelling as a folk art encourages the participation of amateurs and has an air of informality, it is helpful to understand that it is also a performance art, so I'd suggest the following rules of etiquette:

  1. Respect time limits. If a story swap or open mic has a limit of 5 minutes, tell a story that fits within the time limit. Don't try and cram in a 10 minute story by speaking twice as fast, and don't assume that your story or your telling is so compelling it deserves more. (And there's no need to preface your story with: "Well, I can't tell you my best story because that would take too long...")
  2. Respect your audience. If they can't hear your story, they can't appreciate it--If you are offered the chance to use a microphone, use it (unless you have had voice training, the kind that allows you to project to the back of an opera house, and have properly warmed up your voice). Take your audience into consideration when choosing which story to tell. An adult audience may not wish to hear the version of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" that you tell at your child's pre-school. Similarly, if there are children in the audience, it may not be the time to present your "Adventures of my Genitalia" monologue that played so well at Burning Man.

In July 1993, Barbara Griffin, Olga Loya, Sandra MacLees, Nancy Schimmel, Harlynne Geisler and Kathleen Zundell--all storytellers from the West Coast of the United States, compiled and placed this statement in the public domain:

Stories are to share and tell. While we encourage the art of sharing stories, we want to encourage respect in our community.
  • You deserve respect. Respect other tellers.
  • A storyteller's personal, family and original stories are her/his copyrighted property.
  • It is unethical to tell another person's original, personal and family stories without the author/storyteller's permission.
  • Folklore and folktales are owned by the public, but a specific version told by an individual teller or found in a collection is the author's or teller's copyrighted property. If you like a folktale you hear, ask the teller for a reference, or where it can be found.
  • Research the story by finding other versions, and then tell it your way.
  • Published literary tales and poetry are copyrighted material. They may be told at informal story swaps, but when you tell another's story in a paid professional setting, you must have the publisher's/author's permission.
  • When telling anywhere, it is common courtesy to credit the source of your story.
  • If you hear anyone breaking these rules of etiquette, it is your responsibility to discuss the rules with them and to tell the storyteller whose tales they are telling.*
  • Pass stories, share stories, and encourage respect within the storytelling community. Please feel free to copy this etiquette statement and pass it out or read it at storytelling events.


* This snitch rule may have caused some controversy-- most reprints of this list don't seem to include it. However, as the women who created the list make their respective livings as professional storytellers, it's a matter of professional courtesy for them to alert their peers to copyright infringement.

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