The Power of Frames


This year, I began reading George Lakoff, a linguist and author whose works include Don’t Think of an Elephant… Lakoff writes in a way that was not clear to me before about the ways people use frames to shape their understandings of the world. Many of us have heard the political caricatures of different family models: liberals as nurturing parents and conservatives as strict fathers. Well, Lakoff tries to explain what those frames mean and how they work.


He argues that language is largely a tool that connects individuals to frames, especially frames that already exist. Taxation is one of Lakoff’s clearest models but I’ll add my own illustration. We all know that death and taxes are said to be certain. While there are lots of ways to think about death, there are relatively few ways in which Americans think about taxation. For most of us, taxes feel like a chore and a burden, so when the GOP began describing lower taxes as ‘tax relief’, it made immediate sense to most people. If we have a burden, relieving that burden is a good thing. So, it seems to follow, lowering taxes (thus relieving a burden) is a good thing.


Joe Biden said paying taxes is patriotic. Of course, technically it is. But that’s not how Americans think of it. Most would describe it as a necessary evil, not as a necessary good. That is consistently true even though certainly, few of us really want to live in the kind of society that would quickly unfold if the IRS ceased to exist. (My friend Rick would be on the first plane to Singapore.) Still, because of the way we perceive taxation, patriotism doesn’t come to mind. Maybe duty or citizenship or avoiding jail or even, for some, the public interest. But our frames about taxation do not include patriotism so Biden sounded foolish to many.


I thought about this notion of framing in my real life a few days ago. When my wife and I arrived at an event, I parked our car and rolled the windows down a crack, thinking that in two hours when we came back, the car would be a little less painfully hot. I promptly forgot about this. Four hours later, thunder booms and my wife asks me to go roll up the windows on the car. I tell her that I didn’t roll them down. She earnestly believes that I did. So I go outside, roll up the windows, chat with other folks doing the same thing and head back inside. I promptly forgot about this.


The next day, my wife asks if the windows were down when I’d gone outside the night before. Yes, they were, I tell her and she tells me that she’s very glad since she didn’t want to cause an argument if she were wrong. I ask her what argument she meant. When she tells me that she means the ‘yes, they are’/’no they aren’t’ exchange, I am dumbfounded. She thought that we had an argument. I thought we disagreed about something. We’d framed the same interaction in very different ways. What is the difference between an argument and a disagreement? Where are the lines drawn? Do lots of things go unsaid because one person is afraid to start an argument when the outcome would only be a disagreement? What other interactions are dramatically altered because of the differences in the frames we’re using? Do we all choose how to frame our daily interactions?


I am thinking a lot about the frames I use and the ones I don’t realize are being used by others.




2 thoughts on “The Power of Frames

  1. You’re right. I notice this especially in reference to “arguments,” as I’m sure R does. The threshold for disagreeing is dramatically different depending on how you grew up. My threshold is very low, and so I have to work on having conflict when it’s necessary instead of letting everything slide.


  2. Thanks for a thoughtful response.
    I think you created another great example of how differently people frame things. I don’t think disagreeing with someone necessarily means there is conflict (as I typically define it).
    I think of conflict as negative but I think disagreements are often creative, constructive and positive. Especially when I learn something. (Hey, sometimes I do!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s