Framing influences our choices every day. Why are we willing to pay $10 for a glass of wine at a fancy restaurant when we could buy a bottle of the same wine for $12? The reputation and décor of a restaurant are forms of framing – cues for judging what kind of situation we’re in and thus how to judge events.
Sociologist Erving Goffman described as “focused interaction” situations in which people openly join together to sustain a single common focus of concern. When we play games, for example, we know that certain types of unsporting or must-win behaviors are unacceptable. After all, it’s just a game. When people share a definition of a situation, certain rules apply. The “frame” provides everyone involved with guidelines about what should and should not be said or done.
So, why do we enter into so many conversations or allow them to continue without providing useful frames? Sure, it would sound ridiculous to say, “Before we start talking, I just want you to know that we’re about to have a pleasant conversation so stick to those rules.” But what if someone is getting the wrong impression of your intentions? What if due to a defensive mood, he takes a conversation down a destructive path? To add a bit more delicacy, let’s suppose this relationship matters. Then a frame might save the day.
Consider two people having a romantic dinner. They’re laughing, enjoying each other’s company and suddenly one of them waves at the waiter and asks for the check. That could easily violate the romance frame. The other person might feel insulted due to clumsy closure of an otherwise perfect evening.
Can disaster be averted in a case like this? A recovery frame such as “That’s not the first time I’ve violated all rules for being smooth” might inject a little humor. The unromantic behavior is defined as a mishap, a product of human frailty, rather than an intended insult or the actions of a buffoon.
When we don’t pay attention to the mismatch of or poorly employed frames, bad things happen in conversations. When a frame is violated in an awkward or rude way and no saving frame is employed, a relationship can be threatened.
Without frames, especially in delicate situations, conversations often operate in clouds of ambiguity leaving the people involved wishing they’d been somewhere else. Skilful negotiators are very handy at framing in ways that facilitate their goals. So, too, are effective communicators. If you haven’t been paying attention to frames, consider starting now. It just might raise your work and social life to a new level.