Episode 19Naive Nitpicking & The Phone Call
00:00 / 21:54

Details and Transcript

References

Theme Music​

Transcript

To my charming family and friends. Near and far. Old and new. This is Kevin Mercurio on the mic. And welcome to the nineteenth episode of the Metaphorigins Podcast. 

 

Now, to show support if you like this sort of content, please make sure to rate and subscribe to the podcast on Apple or whatever platform you are listening to this on, and follow @metaphorigins on Instagram, where I will be posting most of my updates, as well as on my personal website: kjbmercurio.com/metaphorigins. Just a reminder, I will hold another draw on my NEXT episode for the beautiful, butterfly-printed, custom Metaphorigins mug, so look forward to that!

 

Okay. So for today’s episode, I’m going to discuss a requested expression not spoken out loud much, at least where I’m from, and perhaps is the closest saying we can get to elicit a feeling of circular reasoning.

 

Let’s draw up the recurring scene: You leave the delicatessen shaking your head, wishing you had not angered the employee. Yes, you were just wiping crispy potato crumbs off your neck and coat, and you certainly didn’t know that flinging the top of your fingers in an upward motion under your chin signified any rude gesture. Perhaps Italians are known to communicate through body language, especially hand gestures. You make note of this in your head to search later.

 

You enter your home beside the deli, slip your shoes off, drop your crumb-y coat on the floor and sink into the couch. What a long day. It started off well: heading to the inaugural Potato-Patata festival to see your friends custom potato dishes, being super impressed with Jean’s salty potatoes and “poutine” idea, going to to the farmer’s market for those brightly coloured fruits and vegetables, but all you could think about was the smell of hot pastrami and beef brisket. Now you have a bizarre pork shoulder and some cold cuts. I guess they will have to do.

 

You begin putting things away in the kitchen and start making your dinner. You season the pork shoulder and fry it in a pan, while also cutting up some veggies for a light salad. You know, it ain’t no beef brisket, but the herbs and spices are certainly making it smell wonderful.

 

Once everything is ready, you place it all on a dinner plate and plop yourself in front of your computer desk, booting up your PC. Munching down on some deliciously seasoned shoulder, you open the Minecraft app and immerse yourself into your shared world with your gaming headphones.

 

Minecraft is an open-world game, with infinite terrain. Players may discover and use raw materials to create new things or advance technology. It’s been cited as one of the greatest and most influential games of all time, winning numerous awards and has been inducted into the World Video Game Hall of Fame. Yourself, having attended the MineCon convention every year, love the aesthetics of creating your own beautiful environment from scratch. That essentially encompasses the goal of the game, as there are no real missions for players to go on.

 

The screen goes third-person view on your character, a block-y looking girl with a yellow, hard hat helmet, blue and purple vest, sleek jeans and brown boots. You are ready to complete a section of your land that you’ve been working on since the day you got the game, the Colossal Forest. It’s something that resembles your favourite memory as a kid, when you visited the Sequoia Redwood Forest in California with your family. Such living monstrosities, towering over you and your parents. You thought about how this must be similar to how ants feel when they walk next to us, if they even have thoughts. Do ants have thoughts?

 

Your Colossal Forest is going to be the most ambitious thing you’ve build to date. It required 64 large chests, with each chest housing 64 distinct spaces that could hold up to 64 of the same raw resource. In this case, it would be wood and leaf material. If the math holds up, that’s 64 by 64 by 64 raw materials, or 262 144 blocks of materials that were used to make the forest.  Each tree would be a 4 by 4 column going up 256 blocks, the highest elevation you can reach in the game. If the math works out, your Colossal Forest would have 256 trees, all of which touching the highest elevation one could reach. What a feat.

 

You begin placing your last hundred blocks of materials: a little more wood on one tree, a little more leaves on another tree. As you do this, your friend Penelope, who has connected to the same world as you, stops by to see the final touches on your creation.

 

“This looks great! How many trees have you planted?” she asks.

 

“Thanks Penelope!” You say. “I had enough resources to plant 256 massive trees! The colossal forest is almost done!”

 

“That’s awesome, great job! And how high do they go?” she asks.

 

“I wanted this forest to be special, so I made sure that each tree will go upwards to the highest level the game can go, or basically 256 blocks stacked on top of each other. The forest is going to look superb.”

 

“Wow you really put a lot of thought and detail into it. I’m so happy for you!”

 

“I wanted to ensure it brings me back to those halcyon years with my parents during our road trip in California. I can’t wait until I can take a picture of it and show them.”

 

“A picture? What do you mean?”

 

“Well I’m going to screenshot the forest with the best camera angle I can get and send it to them.”

 

“Ummm, I don’t think that will be possible…” Penelope says, after hesitating.

 

“What do you mean it won’t be possible?”

 

“Well, you can’t see the forest for the trees. The trees are too big.”

 

“No they’re not!” You protest. “They fit within the game’s system parameters. They have to be this big on account of the Sequoias I saw when I was little. They looked like they reached space!”

 

“But if you built the trees specifically to reach the highest level that is allowed in the game, how can the camera zoom out for you to see the whole forest?”

 

You thought about that for a second. “Awh shit.” You finally reply, and begin mining the first tree for its wood to reduce size.

 

I couldn’t think of a better ending than the reply, “Awh shit”. But in case you may have missed it, today’s expression is an elegant lesson when too concerned about the details of something. But why can’t we observe the grander picture if we focus on its primary element?

 

What’s the origin to the expression, “You can’t see the forest for the trees”?

 

***Theme music***

 

 

Most of this information was obtained from various articles discussing the origin to this expression. All sources will be mentioned in the description.

 

Something I value from metaphors and expressions are their tendency to showcase lessons from history. We learn to live a joyous, benevolent and effective life through the experiences of those before us. An elegant example of this is the famous saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. Or perhaps sentences from fictional accounts are so well-worded that we have come to incorporate them into our own way of life. On the 7th episode of this podcast, we went through the well known idiom, “Don’t just a book by its cover”.

 

Lessons, whether they are simple or complex, can be best remembered when they are well articulated. Language that can evoke imagination, connect with our senses and our own experience and somehow tie everything together into a novel idea are the phrases that get passed on and guide the next generation.

 

Today’s expression is a part of this league of metaphoric language. “You can’t see the forest for the trees” or “you can’t see the wood for the trees”, is advice normally given to a pedant, or someone who is excessively concerned with minor details or rules and often misses the bigger picture. As one Quora user put it, “A similar saying is: When you are up to your ass in alligators, it is hard to remember that you came here to drain the swamp. In order to get rid of the ‘alligators’, you need to drain the swamp. But you can’t drain the swamp, because if you stop fighting the alligators, they will eat you up […] But the swamp is the REAL problem, and if you can drain that, the alligators will disappear.”

 

In my own experience, I haven’t heard this saying floating around. Fans of hard rock or metal might be surprised, as was I, to know that this expression appears in Marilyn Manson’s most famous song:

 

“The beautiful people, the beautiful people. It’s all relative to the size of your steeple. You can’t see the forest for the trees, you can’t smell your own shit on your knees.” I never would have thought that I could vibe with a song raging against the culture of beauty in the 1960s.

 

Other people have quite literally ruminated on this expression to gain meaning in their own lives, particularly in business management. Robert Tanner, Founder and Principal Consultant of Business Consulting Solutions LLC, wrote a blog post recounting his experience being lost in a forest himself. “As I made my way back to the site, I realized that the trees where I had entered was the beginning of a large forest. After being lost for some time, I had found a side exit out of it […] In business and in life, we sometimes cannot see the forest for the trees […] We can only see the forest when we get out of the trees! Sometimes you have to get out of something to see beyond what lies directly before you.”

 

Jared Jay Jerotz, another business consultant, reflects on this expression and connects it to what he does in his career, calling himself a “Tree Remover Extraordinaire”, presumably to help business owners see the forest or understand how to run their business to fulfill its true purpose.

 

The expression also spawned an interesting dispute between the correct usage of the Economist Magazine’s 2002 advertisement. The magazine ran a campaign that depicted a side by side comparison. On the left, a group of trees, unironically labelled The Trees. On the right, a log or a piece of wood, interestingly labelled The Economist. Using the British English version of the expression, “you can’t see the wood for the trees” can confusingly be translated to “you can’t see the Economist for the Trees”. What I expect, as did the debator in question, the advertisement wished to mean that the Economist can help readers see the wood, or the big picture, hidden by the trees. Maybe if the trees were not simply labelled, The Trees, but labelled, other magazines, that would be more accurate.

 

“You can’t see the forest for the trees” isn’t even the only expression that combines forests, trees and our senses. Perhaps you’ve heard of the philosophical question, “If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound?” Perhaps because you’re were so busy looking at trees trying to understand whether a sound needs to be heard in order for a sound to exist at all, that you didn’t realize half the forest behind you has been removed for new apartment complexes.

 

But I digress. An expression with versions commonly used in almost 20 different languages… Where does it originate from? Glossologics blog and Phrase Finder attribute the British English version (and likely the American English version as well) to the 1546 Proverbs in the English Tongue, by English writer John Heywood. In it is the following:

 

“An olde saied sawe, itche and ease, can no man please.

Plentie is no deyntie [dainty]. ye see not your owne ease.

I see, ye can not see the wood for trees.”

 

Phrase Finder summarizes the meaning behind this passage well, “Heywood's meaning is that, by having so many good things, people can miss the fact that life as a whole is good. In more recent times people might be advised not to worry about detail when life in general is good.”

 

However, for the expression to be included in such a collection, it would have to have already been floating around in the vernacular at the time. We therefore go a little bit further in the past, 13 years prior to Heywood’s publication, to the work of Saint Thomas More, before he was executed by King Henry VIII for treason. In a book published in 1533 titled Confutacion of Tyndals Answere, More argued against an English cleric by the name of Robert Barnes, whom More believed to be a heretic, “And as he myght tell vs, that of Poules chyrch we may well se the stones, but we can not se the chyrch. And then we may well tell hym agayne, that he can not se the wood for the trees.”

 

And that seems to be the most credible origin story to the expression “You can’t see the forest for the trees.” Used in an argument against following an unpopular church and extrapolating it to fit pedantic lifestyles, or even in our own careers, this metaphoric lesson teaches us to step back and appreciate life FOR its finer details.

 

***Theme music***

 

 

For the science segment of this episode, I am going to talk about an article published in the Atlantic (which, I feel, holds quite a collection of articles about communication thankfully) titled, “Why no one answers their phone anymore”. The link to the article will be in the description.

 

The article is written by Alexis Madrigal, an American Journalist and author of How the Bay Was Built, a book about how the San Francisco Bay Area has been “shaped by great floods of money and power”. He also co-founded, along with fellow writer Robinson Meyer and data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher, the COVID Tracking Project to maintain a regularly updated database of COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States.

 

The article caught my attention as someone who despises phone calls. Absolutely cannot even a little bit tolerate any aspect of a phone call. The impersonalized characteristic of interpreting voice intonation while visualizing the body language communication of someone who I may not want to talk to in the first place makes my skin crawl inwards as I try to collapse into a relatively small black hole.

 

I’m being melodramatic. I’m aware of its obvious necessity and efficiency depending on the circumstances. Let’s start with necessity. How many of you have relatives or old friends that aren’t very technologically savvy? Perhaps a parent who tried using their cell phone to call a friend but was dialing the number in the calculator app. Or an acquaintance who called you to ask if you can google the number of some store and let them know what it is and when they’re open until. These actually happened to me in the last few months. Phone calls also have a striking efficiency to them (if efficiency is the goal for both interlocutors). The immediacy of an answered phone call can fulfill its purpose in less than a minute, something that text messaging and email gambles on to put your needs at a higher priority level than whatever your receiver was doing at the time.

 

Getting to the article, the telephone was certainly revolutionary, allowing those who had telephones to communicate with each other via long distances by connecting them through an electrical switchboard. You might be surprised to know that Alexander Graham Bell, often noted as the inventor of the telephone, was indeed not the inventor but the first to receive a US patent for the the telephone in 1876. An Italian inventor by the name of Antonio Meucci built the first telephone more than 20 years prior to Bell’s patent. Another interesting history lesson missing from North American schooling.

 

When you answer a telephone, what’s your normal go-to greeting? “Hello” “Hi” “You’ve reached so and so” or the classic “Yo wassup”. As unique greetings go, my friend Allan and I always answer our phone calls with a drawn out shout of the other person’s first name, repeating depending on the importance of the call. If urgent, only one drawn out “Alllllaaaaaaaaaan” is communicated. Remember, efficiency is achieved so long as it is a goal for both individuals on the call. According to the article, Bell wanted people to start conversations with “Ahoy-hoy!”, like the infamous Montgomery Burns on the Simpsons, and AT&T tried shunned people from saying “Hello” to start phone calls, which backfired and influenced the common saying to become, so common. Funny how that was a preview to hiding things from the internet.

 

Phone calling had a sense of respect at one point in time. Madrigal states “In the moment when phone rang, there was imperative. One had to pick up the phone. This thinking permeated the culture from adults to children.” What kind of monster would not pick up a ringing phone? Of course, this would be before caller ID could be saved, since if you didn’t pick up the phone, there was no means of knowing who had called. What if it was something important? I mean, they called for a reason, a PURPOSE, right?

 

It was “the expectation of pickup” that made phone calls appealing. But this culture of phone calling is disappearing. As Madrigal mentions, “No one picks up the phone anymore. Even many businesses do everything they can to avoid picking up the phone.” Which is true when you think about it. Customer Service used to be about person to person communication, I would go so far as connection. Now, how many levels within an automatic, key-pad flow diagram do you have to go through in order to reach the next available agent within approximately 30 minutes while we put you on hold listening to The Eagle’s Hotel California?

 

The phone call was, as scholar Robert Hopper described as, “not quite ritual, but routine to the extent that its appearance approaches ritual.” And if you know anything about my writing, which you quite fairly might not know anything about, is my disdain for routine, or at least routine that doesn’t benefit people whatsoever. What’s the worst thing that can happen if you don’t pick up the phone? And how many times could that possibly happen? How many times has not picking up the phone been followed-up with the better phone call alternative? 

 

Technology, as historic as the phone call has become, is adapting. As Madrigal lays out, “You’ve got your Twitter, your Facebook, your work Slack, your email, FaceTimes incoming from family members. So many little dings have begun to make the rings obsolete.” Sure, these applications are unique, novel and certainly impacting the reward centres in our brains at an alarming magnitude. But there must be some greater push against phone calling due to technological advancement.

 

There certainly is, and I’ll describe with my own anecdote. Back to talking about necessity and people I know who are not technologically savvy, and they do tend to be on the older side. One person I know received a call about how their information had been hacked. This person, an older immigrant to Canada, is absolutely terrified and doesn’t fully understand how this is possible, but is definitely plausible. The worst part is that the caller claimed to be the hacker, and demanded that this person pay a large amount of money or else they will leak every piece of information they have on them and take everything. This amount was in the tens of thousands of dollars, to which was paid to the caller via untraceable wired transfers before suspicion and legal authorities crept in. Devastating. Years of savings gone in less than 24 hours.

 

Spam calling, scams, robocalling… These unsolicited calls brought the once respected culture in phone calling to its demise. According to Madrigal, “the [US] Federal Communications Commission has been trying to slow robocalls for at least half a decade […] [Yet] April 2018 showed them at an all time high.” These numbers reached over 3 billion robocalls in the US, which doesn’t even include real people, whether they are telemarketers or scammers.

 

Person to person communication has always been extremely important and appreciated. However, in this new technological age, this appreciation was used against people for personal or corporate gain. What incentives are there to still call when there are so many better ways to reach someone, securely and on your time, not someone else’s. We are losing what was once a great part of society not because of what I had grown to desire (in-person communication and interpreting body language) but because we have lost one of the two main reasons for phone calling to be valued, efficiency based on a mutual purpose.

 

Thanks for listening to this episode of… Metaphorigins. Remember to rate and subscribe for more episodes, and to follow the podcast on Instagram for updates on the next draw, which will take place on the NEXT episode and special Season 2 Finale! But until then, stay skeptical, but curious.

 

***Theme music***

I'd love to hear from you.

  • LinkedIn - Black Circle
  • Twitter - Black Circle
  • Instagram - Black Circle

© 2019 By Kevin Mercurio. Proudly created with Wix.com