More Than Meets the Ear
One thing we need to keep in mind is that when people are talking about one thing, sometimes they're really thinking about something else.
On an episode of “Married ...With Children” (my all-time favorite sitcom), Peg Bundy and Marcy D'Arcy start arguing loudly about whether cups should be stored right side up or upside down. Peg thinks right side up is best, whereas Marcy swears by upside down. Sounds silly, right?
That depends. In this case the difference is symbolic. You see, Al and Peg Bundy run a dirty household—and yes, that extends to the cups. Right side up cups collect dust … which, according to Peg, they eventually use to make hot chocolate! (Don't try this at home.)
Well, issues like this are a constant peeve of their neat neighbors, the D'Arcys. Marcy is an affluent (and childless) bank manager, who feels—and acts—superior to the Bundys. Al Bundy left his glory days behind in high school decades previously. Now, he has a low-level retail job, a bad attitude and worse personal hygiene, a lazy wife, two underachieving children and a messy household.
So when Peg argues for storing cups right side up, Marcy sees it as one more example of the Bundy household's laziness and filth. Right-side-up cups are, to her, symbolic of all that is wrong with the Bundys—and, by contrast, of all that is right with the D'Arcys.
It's a bit like the joke about the man who went bear hunting. He saw a huge bear, fired at it … and missed. The bear ran up to him and said “Take your pick … I kill you, or you clean up all the trash around this forest.” Not exactly the toughest choice he made that day.
He came back the following year, eager for revenge. He sighted in on the same bear, pulled the trigger—and found he'd left the safety on! The click brought the bear running: “Now I'm getting mad. Do you want to die ... or pick up all the trash around this forest, burn it and bury the remains?” Still a pretty easy choice.
The year after that, he was determined that this time he would get the bear. He brought his trusty rifle once again, saw the bear up close, got into firing position, made sure to turn the safety off—and the bear disappeared. Next thing he knew, he felt a tap on his shoulder and a now familiar voice: “You're not here for the hunting, are you?”
In other words, what you see someone doing—let alone saying—may not be all that's on their minds. We may have to dig deeper to see what's really on their agenda. What something is on the surface may not represent all it means to them.
One thing that often helps in these situations: Look at the history! Play “Concentration”--look for a match—in each side's past behavior. What did they do or say before that's a bit like what they're doing and saying now?
The Bundys and the D'Arcys had fought for years about issues like dumping garbage, noise and how much money they make. So, Peg may have seen putting cups upside down as meaningless pretentiousness, like keeping the living room spotless and never allowing anyone in it. Whereas Marcy likely perceived the Bundys' keeping cups right side up as yet another shortcut that only dirty people would want to use, like going days without showering.
Something to keep in mind next time we see someone arguing over something that means little to us: There may be more to it than meets the ear.