Did you ever ask yourself why all of our maps have North at the top? Why are globes always positioned with the North Pole on top (or at least within 23.5°)?
Remember, our earth is just a speck in the Milky Way, and nobody has yet decided what is up and what is down in the Milky Way, or in the universe.
North is always at the top by convention, that is, people started doing it that way, long ago, and it’s never been challenged. So now we all accept “North at the top” as just the way things are.
To be sure, many ancient cultures put East at the top, a few others put South at the top, but since Europeans drove the great Age of Exploration, their version prevailed, and now it’s universal.
So, what has this got to do with effective communication? A good deal, actually. The wise communicator will always keep in mind that amongst any population there are conventions. These apply to everything we do-- dancing, coding, driving.... If you are in Australia, for example, you might want to argue with locals that everyone should be driving on the right, but it would be smarter to adapt to the local convention while you’re there. Conventions keep you connected to the community, and in that case, alive.
So it is with good communication. By and large, we have a universal understanding of the spelling of words, grammatical structure, and (within populations) pronunciations. These are the rules by which we play. Let’s take an example from my francophone colleagues.
In modern English, we have only one form of “you” (it wasn’t always so), but in French and indeed most other languages, there are several forms, designating number and respect. Thus, if you are speaking to an individual of a higher station, you will use vous, even though vous is structurally plural. (It’s rather like the “Royal we”, as in “We are not amused.”) If you are speaking with an equal, or informally, you use tu.
I asked a French-speaking legal colleague whether one could address a judge as tu (the familiar form). He laughed and answered, “Yes, but only once!” Convention requires that you address the judge as vous. If you hope to get back into the courtroom, you will vousvoyer the judge and tutoyer your friends!
Most of the time you want to respect convention because it keeps you on the same wavelength as your communication respondents. It signals tribal solidarity, which means your talk is more likely to be accepted. To breach convention unnecessarily is jarring to the listener and introduces suspicion.
But there are circumstances where you want to upset the apple-cart. If you want to get your listeners to (if I may use a dreadful cliche) think outside the box, you need to jar them. Thus, in a formal essay you may want to use the expression "Say it ain't so!" for impact and effect, so long as the reader clearly understands that you've used it deliberately. Breaching conventions is something like handling dynamite-- extremely effective if done right, but never to be done carelessly.
Want to have some fun? Next time you have access to a globe and can do this without getting lynched, just turn the earth upside down in its frame and watch the reactions! Or if you have a map on your wall, pin it upside down. If you get some really interesting reactions, let me know.
From a purely cartographic perspective, see upsidedownmap or even a great article in Al Jazeera.
As a Canadian, I’m looking for some kind of projection to get us a little closer to the equator-- if you have any ideas in that regard, let me know.
Norman Bowley is a communicator by passion, a lawyer and educator by profession. Thirty-six years of legal practice after ten years as an educator have equipped Norm to teach professionals how to communicate effectively and with power.