Recycle: Frame of Reference

Ever hear of the term “Frame of Reference?” I’m sure some of you have, but for those who haven’t, let me define it for you.

“Frame of Reference: The context, viewpoint, or set of presuppositions or of evaluative criteria within which a person’s perception and thinking seem always to occur, and which constrains selectively the course and outcome of these activities” Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought (2nd edn: 1988)

“We are told about the world before we see it. We imagine most things before we experience them. and those preconceptions, unless education has made us acutely aware, govern deeply the whole process of perception. They mark out certain objects as familiar or strange, emphasizing the difference, so that the slightly familiar is seen as very familiar and the somewhat strange as sharply alien …” Walter Lippmann Public Opinion NY, Macmillan, 1922

You can also watch the beginning of this funny little video (of course at the time it was filmed, it would have been normal, now it’s just kind of funny lol) to get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Here are a few examples of you, yes you, using your own frame of reference.

Ever notice that before you buy a certain color or kind of car, you don’t see many of them and then once you purchase that color, there are a lot of them? Your frame of reference changes once you buy that car. You now start to see more and more of those cars on the road. You don’t seriously believe that everyone ran out and bought that same color car or same kind of car the same day you did, do you? <grin>

Or how about when you are driving that popular car around and you are looking out the windows, the side windows to be specific. What looks like it’s moving, the car … or the stuff outside the car? Sitting in the car, it looks like the stuff outside is moving. Standing outside the car, it looks like the car is moving. We all know that in truth the car is moving.

Sometimes the Frame of Reference conceals the truth, sometimes it reveals it. Others (the people walking on the sidewalk), may see the truth, but we (driving in the car) never will. It can result in a lot of arguments and frustrations. Unless we are willing to recognize we HAVE a Frame of Reference, the truth may never really be known to us.

How about this one. You and a friend are walking down the street moving toward each other. You both stop to look at this.

You’re friend says, “Wow! That is so cool!” You’re looking at it with your own opinions, maybe you think it’s cool too, maybe you think it’s just weird.

Then your friend says, “Makes me want to get up on it and take it for a spin!”

At this point, you would probably be like, “Huh? What? You’ve lost your mind!”

Here’s what you don’t know. … You’re friend is standing in a different place than you and this is what they see:

Unless one of you is prepared to change their position, you will never understand what the other is seeing.

Here’s some Frames of Reference that us American’s have that we may not even know we have.

  • So Americans, how do you eat a piece of bread? I know you just pictured someone eating a piece of bread. But if I asked someone in Holland that, they would have a completely different picture. Because in Holland, they always use utensils. Many Dutch even eat bread with a knife and fork!
  • American’s, what does it mean when you are at an event and someone whistles loudly while other’s are cheering? We all know this right? A whistle like that is kind of the same as clapping your hands. But a European might view that differently because in some parts of Europe it is known as a type of booing. Think of the fights which could break out all because of a Frame of Reference.
  • Want to be really confused as an American?  In some parts of the Middle East, shaking your head “no” means “yes” and nodding your head “yes” means “no”. Now THAT could led to a lot of problems with communications!

Our frame of reference is so familiar to us, that we don’t even know that we have it. When we are using it, we have a hard time understanding the other’s person’s perspective.


Back to that modern art I showed above. What would you have done in this situation? Would you have just kept the thought to yourself – “Man, he’s weird … take it for a spin, right! Goofy!” Or would you have stood where you were and yelled out to him, “Man, you are a messed up!” Or would you have asked him, “Dude, what are you talking about?” Would you have given him a chance to explain himself? Would you be willing to change your position long enough to get an understand of what he was seeing?

Take time today to try to see you’re life through someone else’s eyes.

At work or school, does someone look at you funny – or better yet – do you consider someone else weird? Try figuring out why they looked at you funny, or why they seem so weird to you.

As you drive down the road, consider what other’s perspectives would be of you (especially when you’re be-bopping to some good music! lol).

When someone’s driving very slow and you are becoming frustrated, think about their perspective, are they older or younger; could they have just recovered from a bad accident? When the store clerk snaps at you …

As you do this, try to reason out if it’s the other person that needs to change their position, or is it you? Remember, it either conceals or reveals truth – sometimes it’s you that needs to have the truth revealed and the position changed.

Asking questions is a great way to bring two Frames of Reference into a much clearly picture and better understanding.


Here’s a thought for Christians:

The disciples and Jesus had a little communication problem in regards to their frame of reference as written about in Matthew 8:23-27 (The Message):

23-25Then he got in the boat, his disciples with him. The next thing they knew, they were in a severe storm. Waves were crashing into the boat—and he was sound asleep! They roused him, pleading, “Master, save us! We’re going down!”

26Jesus reprimanded them. “Why are you such cowards, such faint-hearts?” Then he stood up and told the wind to be silent, the sea to quiet down: “Silence!” The sea became smooth as glass.

27The men rubbed their eyes, astonished. “What’s going on here? Wind and sea come to heel at his command!”

Do you see the different frames of references going on here? Interesting isn’t it? As we read through the Bible, the frame of reference of passages can be very important. It can change the whole meaning of the passage if we aren’t careful. Understanding the context, setting, audience, location, and culture of the passage before drawing a conclusion as to the meaning is always important.

As Christians, sometime we forget we have a frame of reference that the rest of the world doesn’t have. We want them to see things from our perspective based on knowledge that we have inside of us. Just like Jesus did, we can become frustrated because they don’t seem to understand.

However, through communication in kind ways, we can help others to see what we see. Jesus didn’t give up on the disciples, He just walked with them and talked with them and taught them, day by day. He was patient enough to try and help them see what He could see – what He knew to be the truth!

We are the ones that see the puzzle all put together – the ones looking at that bicycle – and unless we are willing to communicate and demonstrate and illustrate what it is that we are seeing from where we are standing, we’ll never be able to get others to want to take it (Jesus) for a spin.


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