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Framing - the Unspoken Necessity

by Doug Lipman

Whenever you tell a story, you tap into a great body of unconscious knowledge about communication. When all is going well, you have no need to pay attention to your unaware abilities. When you have a problem to solve, however, it can help to understand the processes at work.

For example, I loved my friend Jake. But I could never tell him a story.

Whenever I began telling Jake my latest new story, I expected him to listen attentively until the end - and then to give me his reaction all at once. Instead, he gave me his reaction all along the way. He said what he thought of each action in the story. By the time I got half-way through, his comments were getting longer, and I was having trouble focusing on the story. If I made it all the way to the end, I felt so exhausted and annoyed that I didn't care whether he even understood what I told him. At this point, he would look hurt and say, "But I thought you wanted me to listen?"

Jake and I had a problem in framing.

Here's another example. Once, I visited someone's family reunion celebration. Each age-group, starting with the youngest, got up and told a series of personal experience stories they had prepared. First, the five- and six-year-olds told cute stories about their pets; everyone was charmed. The next group, all seven- and eight-year-olds, outdid them. They told about their relationships with each other in a way that was both moving and humorous. When the nine-year-olds got up to tell, therefore, expectations were high. The audience was laughing easily, and, seduced by their power over their listeners, the nine-year-olds began telling jokes. The audience laughed appreciatively. When the young storytellers ran out of ordinary jokes, they started on scatalogical ("bathroom humor") jokes. Suddenly, their moment in the sun turned into a rainstorm. Their audience was shocked, and - when they were dragged off the stage - so were the nine-year-olds.

They, too, had a framing problem.

Just the other day, I saw someone begin a prepared story in a business situation. She was nervous, and was fully a third of the way through her story before her audience understood that she was giving a prepared piece. Feeling they had been misled, they reacted angrily, saying, "Do you expect us to listen to this much longer?" Naturally, she felt defeated.

Obviously, her nervousness and other factors played into the situation. But her failure was in making clear that she wanted to shift the frame.

Because none of these people knew what a frame is or how it works, they were all utterly perplexed when it failed to work as expected.

"Framing" represents a basic unconscious decision underlying storytelling: our judgment of "what is going on here?" when a story is being told. Framing has vital applications to the storyteller's technique and to the audience's understanding of the story. This article looks briefly at the big picture. Another article could go into the details: who speaks and when (Jake's and my problem), what kinds of stories are expected (oh, those nine-year-olds!), and how people know when a story is happening (what the business woman struggled with).

To understand all these problems, it will help to learn a few concepts borrowed from the social sciences.

Messages About Messages

One monkey hits another. The second monkey looks pleased and makes a playful response.

This interchange raises a question: How did the second monkey know that the hit was intended playfully rather than aggressively?

Decades ago, Gregory Bateson suggested that the hit - the "message" the first monkey sent - was not the entire communication. The first monkey must have also sent a communication about the communication, a metacommunication. Something in the first monkey's stance, gestures, or facial expression gave the meta-message, "What I am doing is to be taken as play, not as aggression."

Bateson's concept has led to important discoveries in linguistics, sociology, anthropology, and artificial intelligence. And metacommunication is an integral part of the storytelling event.

What's Going On Here? Frames!

Metacommunication doesn't just happen on the level of the individual message. Instead, there are whole sets of metamessages that, together, tell us how to interpret what is happening by invoking a particular set of expectations.

Once we have started a teasing interchange with a coworker, for example, we assume that "teasing each other" is what is happening, until further notice. The set of expectations around "teasing each other" might include - depending on the circumstances and history of our relationship - that our statements are not to be taken literally, that each teasing statement will be followed by a teasing rejoinder, that others can't join in unless they know us both well, and that we will stop if someone's feelings get hurt or if the boss comes by.

Such a set of expectations is what Bateson called a frame, by analogy with the physical frame that separates a picture from the wall on which it is hung. The picture frame tells us that we are to interpret the patterns within it as "art," not as "background." In other words, the frame tells us that "a work of art is happening here," not an accidental splashing on the wall or a continuation of the wallpaper decorations.

In any social situation, therefore, the "frame" is the answer to the question, "What is going on here?" And our perception of the frame determines how we interpret what happens within it.

For example, suppose that "what is going on here" is a doctor's appointment. If my doctor says to me during an appointment, "How is your heart?" I would interpret the question to refer to my physical organ and its ability to keep beating.

Suppose, however, that my bosom buddy and I are talking in a private space, within the frame, "confidential chat." If this buddy asks, "How is your heart?" I would interpret the question to refer to my romantic or spiritual involvements.

In short, the same message ("How is your heart?") is interpreted differently in different frames. If my buddy or my doctor and I share an understanding of the current frame, we will communicate well. If not, we may miscommunicate - and perhaps never understand why. Communication, in other words, is completely dependent on framing.

The Frame of the Storytelling Event

Before you can tell a story successfully, you have to establish a particular frame: a frame of "storytelling." In other words, you and your listeners need to agree that "what is happening" is that "a story is being told."

Different contexts, however, bring different requirements and problems in establishing a storytelling frame. In other words, the storytelling frame is embedded in some larger frame, which has its own rules and expectations.

If my friend Jake was part of a large group listening to me tell stories from a stage, I would probably not have had a problem communicating to him how I wanted him to listen. The formal setting and the behavior of the others would have established a set of expectations for the behavior of listeners. In our conversational setting, however, where the norm was free exchange, I had to find some way to signal to him that I wanted to change the rules to fit my concept of "listening to a story." This was the problem facing me that I didn't understand.

In each storytelling event (whether formal or informal) both the storyteller and the listeners must accept a shift from the current frame to a particular embedded frame of "storytelling"--and a shift back again when the storytelling is over.

This shift involves changes in roles, expectations about content, and particular markers to help establish the start and end of the storytelling frame. The details of this shift will require another article to explain. For now, though, it may be enough to understand that framing - and the metamessages that convey it - is an essential, if hidden part of storytelling and all communication.

For an application of the concept of framing, see the article Midrash - The Key to Interpretation, which shows how adding episodes can change the frame - and therefore the meaning - of a story.

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This page was last updated on Friday, November 28, 2003
Copyright©2001 Doug Lipman