Thursday, July 30, 2015

The importance of naming relationships

There’s an interesting story about the build-up to a war that never actually resulted in one, for want of a good name for the war. In 2001 Indian forces were building up, apparently in preparation for war with Pakistan after an attack on India’s parliament.

The question was, would India launch a war? Journalist Shekhar Gupta put this question to the then Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Instead of answering the question, Vaypayee countered with his own: what should the war be named? If there wasn’t an answer to that question, war was ruled out.

It might seem a stupid question, but in it lay a deeper question: what was the objective of the war? Do you call it a war of liberation, a war of pulverization or a war of revenge? If you are confused about the name, you’re likely to be confused about the end-game you’re after. A name can serve as a sort of heuristic, to quickly reveal an underlying motive or truth.

In the event, the war didn’t happen.

Although the similarity to naming wars may seem tenuous, we give names to relationships all the time too, so we have some indication of what’s going on. A couple of examples are marriage and friendship.

Conversely, we can give names to relationships by watching the behaviours that are revealed in them. At work, we haven’t given a name to the most important relationship in an employee’s life - the relationship between boss and subordinate. What name should we give this relationship? The short answer: dictatorship, because that’s what boss and subordinate behaviours reveal. 

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