Have you already been framed today? To answer the question in advance: It’s highly likely. Because there is no language withour frames. Is your energy company justifying yet another “price adjustment”? Why aren’t they talking about “price increases”? And why is a company’s media spokesperson announcing a “process of restructuring” and not a “series of layoffs”? These examples show: Every phrase works as a spotlight, highlighting certain features of an object – and obscuring others. Putting it simply: While poets sometimes love to romantically talk of a “moonsickle”, the moon itself never actually has that shape.

While poets sometimes love to romantically talk of a “moonsickle”, the moon itself never actually has that shape.

How framing shapes our communication

In linguistics, these “visible” parts of expressions are called frames. Books like George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” have popularized the term outside of academic circles as well. Framing, the process of linking a message with a certain context, is indeed a necessary tool in the toolbox of any communication professional. Does that make framing manipulation? Is it about guiding people’s gaze away from unaesthetic details? Or can these implicit ratings even be useful? As is the case so often – it depends.

Frames don’t bite

As hinted at before, we can’t escape framing. We even use frames ourselves every day, mostly without realizing it. Our mood decides whether the proverbial glass is half empty or half full. Painting this simple picture says more than a lot of words and helps us communicate efficiently. But for those about to frame everything, a word of warning: Frames are always the sum of a person’s experiences. A common case of mis-framing is literally translating idioms to another language, disregarding any cultural context. (For a funny example, see “Shooting fish in a barrel”).

There is no language without frames

While framing happens subconsciously in everyday life, for communication professionals it’s part of day-to-day business. There is no language without frames. Therefore, the very expertise of a communication professional lies in recognizing the frames of reference in her target audience and finding adapting messages for them.

In this way, she can shape opinions. One popular example is to reframe a paralyzing “problem” as a mobilizing “challenge”. Whereas, when a high-level manager refers to her employees only as soulless “human capital”, framing goes way too far. For good reason, the word was voted as “Un-word of the year” in 2004, an ironic price awarded to dehumanizing or otherwise offensive terms. In this case, the framing doesn’t motivate – it expresses social indifference.

Walking the thin line between useful and misleading framing requires communication skills and can be learned like any craft, given enough passion. According to writer Samuel Johnson, language is the dress of thought. In this sense, tailormade language always fits best. What examples for framing can you come up with? I look forward to your comments.