I keep to myself at the gym.
For a guy who knows a lot of people and enjoys talking to people, this may seem odd. And I suppose it is. But my workout time is limited and my typical routine takes an hour-and-a-half, so I must stay focused.
Of course I’ll acknowledge folks I know with a wave or quick hello but not much more. And I never, ever talk to strangers. Which is why I found myself having an internal debate over whether to approach this young lady at the apparatus across from me.
“You have to ask her,” I’d think one moment.
“Mind your own business,” I’d think the next.
Asking won out.
It was the shirt she was wearing that caught my attention. “Keep calm and serve on” it read. As a tennis player for more than 40 years, I wanted to know where she played her tennis.
After introducing myself and apologizing for disturbing her, I asked her just that.
“Pardon me?” she responded, a puzzled look on her face.
“Your shirt,” I explained. “Keep calm and serve on.’ I’m wondering what tennis team you’re on.”
“Oh,” she chuckled. “No. Not tennis. I attend King’s College and we have to do public service. ‘Serve on’ means to keep helping others.”
It was my turn to laugh. At myself.
I immediately thought of another misperception a few weeks ago. I attended the thank you breakfast for Salvation Army bell ringers at the Moose Club in West Pittston. A woman joined us at our table and introduced her teenage daughter, whom she brought along. When the food arrived, I could not help noticing the youngster bowing her head for several minutes.
I was touched. And impressed.
“You don’t see many adults these days, let alone teenagers, saying grace before a meal,” I thought.
Then the girl looked up and took the cell phone from her lap and placed it on the table. She had been texting not praying.
Each of these are examples of the concept of “framing.”
I read about it back around Christmas in the book “Don’t Think of an Elephant” by George Lakoff. The title itself is based on framing. If you tell someone not to think of an elephant, that’s exactly what they are going to think of.
All of us have brains filled with frames, Lakoff says, and everything we encounter is automatically placed into one of those frames. Someone’s frame of elephant might include a trunk, or peanuts, or the circus, or never forgetting, or the Republican party; just as someone’s frame of the word “serve” might be tennis, and of a bowed head might be “praying.”
The Lakoff book I read is his second on the topic. The full title is “The All New Don’t Think Of an Elephant.” Its subtitle: “The essential progressive guide for the issues that define our future: climate, inequality, immigration, health care and more.”
Yes, it’s political. It’s basic premise is that over the past decade conservatives have trounced progressives (liberals) at framing. New frames can be constructed, Lakoff says, and once they exist, they are almost impossible to be broken. “Make America Great Again” is a heck of a frame. So’s “Obamacare,” which got much more traction than “Affordable Care Act.” And do I have to bring up “Crooked Hillary?”
Lakoff, who’s called the “father of framing,” says Republicans have won the framing war for one reason: they are smarter. They understand frames. They understand how people think, how they talk, how they listen and how they process information. More importantly, they understand “frames trumps facts” (his words). Once you have a frame in your head, Lakoff says, all the facts in the world won’t change it.
While I find all of this quite interesting, I will leave the political discussion to everyone else. I am more interested in the kinds of frames I mentioned at the start of this piece, and 1) that I need to recognize them in my own brain, and 2) that I need to learn how to use them.
I’ve come up with one already. Say I have just run 2.2 miles on the elliptical machine. If asked how far I’ve run, I can say “just over 2 miles,” or I can say “I’m in my third mile.”
Both responses are true, but I find the second one far more impressive. That, right there, is framing.
Suddenly it occurs to me I’ve been framing my career for the last 26 years. If asked what I do for a living, I never say “I’m a teacher who writes,” I always say “I’m a writer who teaches.”
I suspect students would much rather learn this craft from the latter as opposed to the former.
By the way, I still can’t believe that girl doesn’t do her serving on a tennis court.
Ed Ackerman writes The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.