Reframing the Ordinary with Metaphors

There are some ordinary things in life that you think don’t need a metaphor. But once you hear the metaphor, it helps you see the ordinary in a whole new way. I found two cases that recently floated across my social media radar that are not only presented well, but are also immediately evident in their necessity.

The first is a video by Canadian sex educator K.B. Chan, based on an essay, “Toward a Performance Model of Sex,” by a feminist writer with the pseudonym Thomas MacAulay Millar. It compares sex to a jam (“not as in a fruit spread, but as in a musical jam”) – in other words, sex is something fun that people do consensually together, which is a sex-positive metaphor if there ever was one.

By referencing sex as a social activity, this particular metaphor produces many useful entailments. In FrameWorks-speak, “entailments” are the statements that mark the boundaries of the category that’s created when you put two or more domains (or items from domains) together. (And more specifically, often the entailments look like matches between the two domains. Sometimes people interpret the entailments automatically and tacitly; sometimes you present them explicitly.) In the case of “sex as a jam,” its power lies mainly in its entailments, and it’s worth working explicitly through them, which the video does. For example, if sex is a jam, then the participants need to be willing and ready to play, which opens up an interesting way to define what sexual consent looks like, among other things. The metaphor becomes a prescriptive model for social behavior.

So does the second metaphor, which came from a Los Angeles Times opinion piece by psychologist Susan Silk and mediator Barry Goldman, providing instructions about what people should say to whom when there’s a tragedy, an illness, or some other trauma. They call it the “ring theory,” and they begin with an anecdote about a woman named Katie, who had been hospitalized with a brain aneurysm.

The “ring theory” works like this:

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.The rules of kvetching

Once this easily generated social map is in place, now you can use it to make rules of behavior  concrete:

The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair” and “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

The whole “ring theory” or “kvetching order” can all be operationalized in terms of a very simple rule: Comfort IN, dump OUT.

Of course, before FrameWorks would recommend these metaphors, we would want to see how they performed in research settings, but there are still a few things are worth noting for the commnity of framers. One is the way these metaphors are presented in a dynamic, fetching and highly visual way. Another is the confident deployment of metaphors for the reframing of two very seemingly ordinary and obvious processes. At FrameWorks, we deploy metaphors to explain complex or abstract processes, but sometimes, even the ordinary and obvious needs to be re-categorized, especially when these realms – like empathy and sex – involve social subtleties that people can’t afford to screw up in real life.

Have you seen any instances recently where a metaphor re-frames an ordinary phenomenon?

(Ring illustration by Wes Bausmith for the Los Angeles Times)

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