Thursday, August 11, 2011

When the Chips are Down

During the recent Congressional debt ceiling debate, President Obama spoke often of the need for compromise, transparency, and a fair deal for all sides. I got to thinking that while we might agree that such attitudes are inherent in a civilized society, the idiomatic expressions Americans use in negotiations (whether in politics or in the business conference room) support very different values of confrontation and a “winner take all” approach.

Who blinked? Who folded? Who cut a deal?

These and so many other idiomatic expressions arose out of card games, gambling, and risk-taking. Card games such as poker produce clear winners – players who rake chips off the table and count their money. In business and politics, however, victory is complicated by who is seen as having blinked (showed weakness), cut a deal (not necessarily positive of your side is uncompromising), or bluffed (deliberately misleading opponents) Perception of strength and winning is as important as the actual content of the victory.

An ace up my sleeve

In negotiation, it’s strategic to have a hidden advantage or resource that you can pull out at a critical moment in the discussion. Aces are usually the best card in a poker player’s hand, and many a poker player in the Wild West found that a hole card, an ace in the hole, or an ace up his sleeve to be useful securing a win. Of course, to the opposition, producing such an advantage at the last moment leads to shouts of “unfair.”

A poker face

Successful negotiators hold their cards close to their vests so as not to reveal plans or innovations prematurely. To tip your hand and reveal your cards (strengths) might allow a competitor to get to market first. So while transparency is applauded, in Congress and in business negotiations, we see a lot of poker faces. Good poker players never reveal in their faces or bodies how good (or poor) the cards are they are holding. They dare their opponents to throw in their chips (give up), rather than risk losing more.

Call my bluff

A corollary idiom is a bluff. To bluff is to show confidence even if one doesn’t hold a winning hand of cards in hopes the other side will give up. We see politicians on TV all the time touting with great assurance that they have the better argument, the voters’ support, or the ability to stop the other side. Of course so much rhetoric is suspect, which is why speaking out or not speaking at all may be a strategy. After all, if they play their cards right, and prevent verbal mistakes that the opposition or the media will pounce on, they might win. All the while, we, the public, know only a small part of the behind-the-scenes story.

Gain the upper hand

At times in the just-ended debt ceiling debate, the President seemed to gain the upper hand – the advantage. But the tables can turn quickly in a gambling game or in negotiations where the stakes are high (a lot is at risk). Even if the cards are stacked against him, and thus loss seems imminent, many a risk-taker would draw to an inside straight (in poker, to draw a specific card to complete five cards in a row). With luck, some bluff, and a tolerance for risk-taking, he just might win.

Lay my cards on the table

I love learning about and using American idioms, so much so that I’ve written Against All Odds: The Culture and Idioms of Risk-Taking in America: Stories for Learning Useful Business Idioms (Volume 2)
. In the story I include over 170 idiomatic phrases and expressions. The American psyche seems wired for risk and winning.

For this blog post I tried to come up with idioms that reflect compromise, sharing, and fair play. While we have a lot of sayings that reflect advice we all got from our mothers (share your toys, etc.), the vivid language we use everyday in business and in politics reflects singular achievement, often at the expense of another's loss. A challenge for society, it seems, is to come up with new imagery and language to communicate the need for compromise and win-win outcomes.

What are some of your favorite expressions for risk-taking and winning? Or for compromise and sharing?

Jolinda Osborne

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