Commentary
12:30 pm
Tue July 29, 2014

The View From The Top

Credit Eisenbahner / Flickr / Creative Commons

A co-worker of mine recently registered her displeasure with the term “the 30,000-foot view.”

The 30,000-foot view is meant to invoke a sense of the big picture, to show how a situation might look from 30,000 feet in the air. The attempt here seems admirable: we do sometimes lose sight of the big picture when we get bogged down in the details.

But the 30,000-foot view is also a not-so-subtle projection of the speaker’s power. By using this term, the person presumes to know what that view actually is. The 30,000-foot viewer wishes to impress upon his audience his superior perspicacity, saying, in effect, “You people can’t see the big picture. I can, and I will now disabuse you of the narrowness of your petty details.”

If we apply George Lakoff’s framing theory to the 30,000 foot view, we see that the speaker is also assuming a superior position, over and above those he’s addressing. According to Lakoff, our brains are culturally wired to think of things that are “up” as better and more. The metaphorical picture of the 30,000-foot view is that he who can see it is more powerful than she who cannot.

It would be an interesting experiment to note the position on the organizational chart of those who use the 30,000-foot view—or to note their aspirations. It would be interesting, too, to note the audience for whom the 30,000-foot view is intended, and why those who invoke it see that audience as incapable of knowing the forest for the trees we’re all lost in every day.