A Simple Turn of Phrase

As you know, if you have been reading this blog recently, we have been discussing the role of language in making change. To put it simply, words are powerful (and it is not just us old English majors who think so). However, even those of us who think about these issues regularly, too often focus on the big picture at the expense of considering the mundane, everyday language we use. While we study Obama’s speeches we forget to think about how we talk to our neighbors.

In the world of meeting facilitation there is a common tool – most people who have been a part of big meetings recently have probably heard of it – the “parking lot.” The idea is that when good (or particularly thorny) issues arise in the course of a meeting that demand follow-up or are perhaps outside the scope of the task at hand, you put them in the “parking lot” and come back to them later.

I was at a meeting recently and as the facilitator was going through the agenda, she pointed to a big piece of butcher block paper hung up at the back of the room and said that was the “bike rack.” People in the room chuckled at that, and I admit that I at first thought in a somewhat snide way “Haha, they are so clever.” However, the more I thought about that turn of phrase – replacing parking lots with bike racks – the more I cam to think of it as a brilliant, simple revision of our everyday language.

The metaphors of transportation – primarily in relation to cars – are so a part of our language that it is easy for them to seem innate and commonplace. But if we, as a society or even a smaller community like the one gathered in that room, want to begin living more sustainably we need to shift our thinking, and thus our language. By using bike rack instead of parking lot the facilitator was not only indicating and articulating a set of values about this meeting and this community of people, but she was also helping set an example. The same dissonance that made folks in the room laugh can move people to think differently about what we take for granted in our lives and our language.

I think little turns of phrase like this will actually become increasingly important as we try to shift the culture of consumption in America in more sustainable directions. We are in a unique moment right now in which a number of forces are beginning to combine to make people reconsider how they are living their lives. While gas prices have slumped, their peek earlier in 2008 helped spark a wave of people moving from the suburbs back into the city and giving up their SUVs for smaller cars. Food prices and food contamination scares are combining to make the idea of organic, local food systems more and more mainstream. As other social trends align, we need our language to reinforce that.

By changing our everyday language, revising the metaphors we so take for granted, we can change the way people think about and relate to the world around us.

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