Framing the world

“When we think we are using language, language is using us. As linguist Dwight Bolinger put it (using a military metaphor), language is like a loaded gun: It can be fired intentionally but it can wound or kill just as surely when fired accidentally. The terms in which we talk about something shape the way we think about it—and even what we see.” –Deborah Tannen, The Argument Culture, p.14

Maybe you’ve had this happen to you. You’re reading a book that makes you think in different terms than you normally do. It’s about gender or race, methods of dialogue or topics of debate, anything that seeks to categorize the world or break down preexisting categories of the world: you look up from the page and start seeing references to this topic everywhere. And as you read about the topic, that book and its terms influence how you view these new references.

A good example is what happened while I was reading The Argument Culture.

Tannen’s book talks about male/female roles in “aggressive” or “conflicted” behavior. Males tend to roughhouse, trade insults in their conflicts. Females form arguments by appearing to avoid arguments. (Obviously, this is simplification of a continuum of gender behaviors.)

Then, as I sat at my daughter’s gymnastics practice, I saw a strange thing.

A young boy, tween-aged or slightly younger, sat beside a woman, presumably his mother. He was roughhousing with her: grabbed her upper arm, twisted it, ran his fingers down her spine (tickling?). His mother allowed this, often punching, playfully, in return. When he grabbed her hair, she grabbed his. It was only when he slapped her arm that she put an end to it; the slap was loud enough that I heard it from several bleacher rows behind them in a loud gym facility.

The behavior struck me as odd.

First, an authority figure allowed this playful-but-aggressive touch from someone who was both old enough to know better and big enough to do serious damage.

Second—and this was the stranger part to me—was the gender and age differences. It was a hierarchical male-female pairing, with the female in the authoritative position.

  • If the roughhousing had been between two male equals (brothers, classmates), it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. I remember junior high boys being this way.
  • If it had been a brother-sister pairing (equal ages, different genders) I might’ve found it strange but not abnormal.
  • If it had been two equal females seems unlikely. Perhaps between sisters or close female friends in childhood, this might happen; I can’t see any adult females acting this way unless they were trying to do damage to the other woman.

But the mother-son dynamic struck me as bizarre. That a female authority figure wouldn’t tell him, no, you don’t treat adults this way, was baffling and disturbing.

But if I hadn’t been reading Tannen’s words about aggression and conflict in male and female behavior, would I have reacted by analyzing the encounter according to these terms?

Would I have characterized his behavior as aggressive? Would I have interpreted her return behavior as conflicted, telling him no, no, but laughing until he hurt her? Would I have noticed this at all, or merely been ticked off that they disturbed my reading time?

And perhaps my analysis of this mother-son dynamic wasn’t accurate. Had I tapped either person on the shoulder and said, “Hey, do you know what I see going on here?” perhaps they would have been startled to hear my description.

“It wasn’t like that at all!” they might’ve protested and substituted their own version(s), complete with different adjectives and verbs. He “tugged” her hair, not “yanked,” for example. Or given that all-purpose reason: it was just a joke! (The implication being that if I fail to understand the joke, the problem isn’t that the joke isn’t funny but that I don’t have a sense of humor.)

But my then-current thoughts had been formed by someone else’s terms. Accurately or not, those terms superimposed themselves upon my perception of the world around me. When I view the world within those terms and categories, it becomes a framing device: the world shifts to fit that frame.

My perception of the world, that is: the real world is still itself. Absolutes do exist, even when they are inconvenient for my personal desires or don’t fit neatly within my philosophical framework. I may be reading and thinking about zero gravity, but if I’m on planet Earth, that absolute law of gravity is reality. Saying that I can fly and jumping off a building won’t prove anything other than my delusional state of mind.

Everyone has presuppositions about the world. Often we can’t see them until we bump up against something that doesn’t quite fit. It startles us. I know I’ve run into these before, about things ranging from my inner psyche to God’s nature to racial perceptions to gender roles in marriage and church. These moments of impact (my experience hitting the wall of my framework—whamp, bam, ouch!) caused me to stumble back and see that wall (surely it wasn’t there a second ago, was it?) and reconsider things around me.

Ultimately, it leads to a choice: what do I do with this new knowledge?

Do I close my eyes and pretend that the reality doesn’t exist?

Do I open my eyes and consider whether my philosophical presuppositions are truthful?

Have those terms, the ones I’ve allowed to define the world, defined it accurately or inaccurately?

Are they still useful or do they misguide my view of the world and others around me? Are they harmful?

That’s why it’s important to use our categorizing terms carefully.




11 thoughts on “Framing the world

  1. What happens when the way you see things turns out not to be the way things actually are? That’s a question I have to keep in mind in the courtroom all the time. Giving people the opportunity to explain themselves leads to a fuller understanding. Even so, the people making a decision of what that all means are purposefully chosen precisely because they weren’t there; they have no stake in the matter and are supposed to thus be able to come to a fair decision even with the limitation of only having the information brought by the people who do have a stake in the case.

    As for brothers and sisters horsing around, my older sister and I used to play a game called I Hit You Last. While on the couch watching TV, one sibling hits the other on the arm or leg and says “I hit you last.” It is then the other sibling’s turn to do the same. The siblings must remain fairly quiet though, or a parent will call out from the other room, “Are you kids rough housing on the couch?” We’d say no, then one sibling would reach out and strike. “I hit you last.”


    1. I hadn’t thought of this in relation to the court of law, but I definitely am now! The judge and jury members are limited (they only know what those involved say happened and other evidence) but they’re also impartial (they don’t have preconceived ideas about the witnesses, etc.) At least in theory, that is. We’re reading To Kill A Mockingbird with our younger daughter, and we had a long talk yesterday about why it wasn’t fair for the jury to be only white men: with their presuppositions about African-Americans, it was unlikely for Tom to receive a fair trial.

      Regarding your game: wow, I missed out on a lot as an only child!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The first thing I wondered when I read your description of the boy and woman at the gymnastics practice was whether he had a disability, e.g. autism. I can imagine my own 12-year-old boy being lovingly aggressive with me in public and not responding to verbal rebukes. (Although what you saw does seem way beyond even that.) But regardless, your point about how our “frame” affects what we see and how we interpret makes so much sense.


    1. Jeannie, from my observations of this family (the daughter is in my daughter’s weekly class), the boy doesn’t appear to have any disabilities like autism. (He engages well with other adults most of the time.) But that’s always a possibility, and one for me to keep in mind when people watching. I’ve read about parents of children with severe disabilities or mental illnesses feeling judged by observers when the kids act “badly” in public. I usually try to keep that in mind when I see other people behaving oddly (say, talking to themselves, etc.), but somehow that possibility didn’t cross my mind in this situation. Thanks for the reminder!


    2. Jeannie, and Laura, that was my thought exactly! I have two adult sons who have ADHD, one with high functioning autism, the other a severe anxiety problem. They are adults now, and, blessedly, both engaged just several weeks ago! Lovely Christian girls.
      Then there is my nephew who has Aspergers, epilepsy, high anxiety, and bipolar problems. He is now finishing school and works as a check out operater in a large supermarket.
      We, my adult sons and their dad, still play physical games, chasey, mock wrestles, scenes from the Hobbit, my high kick is pretty cool they say.
      My hair gets mussed up by one son, the other delights in word games and being cheeky, the aim to get me to chase him round the house, all laughing madly and loving each other as much.
      Lots of hugs and chats and serious conversations too, a thing to work at, a lot!
      My point I guess, is that I used to let them go further than other parents might, and take similar behaviours for a time. It was partly their way of relating, partly my way of learning about them.
      They are now doing extremely well, and they tell me the acceptance of who they were and how they were helped them greatly.
      I teach children like these, so I know, with love and relaxed attention and individual treatment, most make a good transition to adulthood.
      Long-winded, but my ‘frame’ immediately saw in that description so many children including mine.
      I love my growing family to distraction and find deep, deep joy in them, God took us on a long, long road to this point, 28 years now.
      P.S to this.
      Laura I’m the sister of a rocket scientist, so I think I know that path too.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sorry it took so long to reply, Ruth. I was out of town for the holidays. Thanks for sharing your experiences with your son’s and nephew. After seeing a relative with asperagers, and how much he’s struggled, I think your acceptance and behavior as a parent with your sons has made a huge difference in how well they’re doing now! Wise parenting makes a tremendous difference. Thanks for sharing!


  3. One more question to consider: Would your perception have been different if it was a son and a father in that situation?

    And then a bit from my perspective. I’m a mother of a nearly 10-year-old boy. He’s an only child. I guess if he had a sibling he could roughhouse with, he’d do that. He plays with friends, but friends are not always around. So it’s become natural for him to want to play with his parents.

    And sometimes I’ll go along and play with him in a bit of a rough and noisy way – have a tickling match, for example. I can tell the difference between his actual aggression (“I’m frustrated/angry and I want to take it out on something”) and the ‘rough’ playing, which is more like “I don’t have anything else to do, I want to play and I have lots of energy that needs an outlet.” No desire to harm. We are not having a conflict or an argument. It hasn’t felt to me like a power struggle either.

    My son doesn’t hit me when he’s angry. I’ve been careful to teach him that it’s not OK to touch other people with aggression. And even when we’re playing, I’ve been teaching him to “be gentle with mom.” He knows to stop playing when I ask him to. And he also knows how to touch gently and lovingly.

    But now I’m feeling a bit unsure. Maybe we are bizarre? A nearly-tween boy who still likes to play with his mother? A mother who agrees to play with her son when he has no one else to play with?

    But that’s the framework I’m coming from. I can’t say much about the situation you saw, because those people are complete strangers to me. Perhaps the boy really was aggressive, frustrated with his mom. I guess I just want to bring the point of view that some mothers do sometimes engage in rough play with their children willingly. 🙂


    1. Those are good points, Tuija. I did consider how my perspective might have been different between a father and son, and I couldn’t quite figure out what my response would’ve been. I might still have been concerned because the boy didn’t seem to understand physical boundaries and respect for adults.

      It doesn’t sound to me like your rough-housing with your son is quite like this situation. The mother kept telling him no, but in an unconvincing way; whereas your son knows how to stop when asked to. Plus, your son knows not to hit. This boy’s actions showed that he either had never been taught not to hit or felt he could get away with slapping his mom’s arm. So, no, I don’t think it’s necessarily bizarre for you to play with your son this way, especially if you’ve clearly showed him the limits and boundaries of what is acceptable and not. That’s the important part, IMO. 🙂 And as I said in the post, I could’ve been completely misinterpreting the interaction (and may still be mischaracterizing it!)

      I’m an only child, and I remember only having my mom or dad to play with or talk to after school or on the weekends. It’s natural to end up being close and talk to them because there aren’t any other pesky siblings interrupting (or deflecting the attention).


  4. Deborah Tannen is a close friend of one of our church friends and I had the honor/priviledge of meeting her last Spring. She is an absolutely fascinating, beautiful, FUNNY woman and I could have listened to her speak for hours. Her conversation was a tad “lighter” in tone than her topics in her book, “The Argument Culture”, but I think you would have enjoyed meeting her…..I am not familiar with this particular book ….will hafta put it on my “reading list”…..How you doing this week with writing of the book?????? 🙂


    1. Oh, I would’ve loved to have heard her speak! I’ve admired her work since college. “The Argument Culture” is a terrific read. I definitely recommend it. (I wish all politicians and politically-inclined folks would read it.)

      As far as the book writing this week . . . it’s spring break, so I have kids at home. Not as much work is getting done, but I am able to do research for the book and some editing for the journal. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Glad to hear the bambinos are keeping you busy”!!! Hopefully, you go out and PLAY!!!! Kids have a special way of “grounding us” and making us not take ourselves so serious some times…..hope you find time for some well-needed silliness this week with your little ones (in between the research and editing!) 🙂 And I’ll definitely put Tannen’s book on my list to read…..YOU would have absolutely fell in love with her! I feel/felt so, so priviledged to have met her! She’s such a lovely, humble (very FUNNY!!!) woman! What an absolutely lovely evening it was……

        Liked by 1 person

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