Sunday, October 22, 2017


One of the pieces to a Mental Status Exam - that's a formal, standard version of what a psychiatric clinician does when she's trying to figure out what's up with you and put it in a form other clinicians can understand - is asking the subject to say what a proverb means to them.  It is introduced in something of an offhand way to reduce anxiety "They mean different things to different people. What do you think it means?" There are recommended favorites.

The grass is always greener on the other side of the street.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Then, a more complicated, abstract one is offered.

People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. I learned early that while most people get the meaning of that somewhat, it's hard to put into words quickly when one is in a pressured, timed situation. That's part of what's being examined, of course. How good is your abstract understanding?

The Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MoCA) - that's what they are going to give you to see if you are dementing* - includes a clock face drawing exercise.

These are standardised tests, but these elements are obsolete for young people now. I had Big Brother Bob Emery on Boston TV to teach me the meaning every day at noon
Oh, the grass is always greener in the other fellow's yard.
The little row we have to hoe - oh boy that's hard.
But if we all could wear green glasses now, then it wouldn't be so hard
To see how green the grass is in our own back yard.
But I'm not sure it's quite as familiar now. 18-year-olds have to stop and think to work out a clock face now, likely because their parents and grandparents sill like the looks of them as decor.

Most proverbs aren't about everyday objects anymore.  A stitch in time saves nine. Knowable, but more remote.

*Just in case you want to brush up on the questions now, when you're at full strength, to delay them putting you into a home later.


RichardJohnson said...

Most proverbs aren't about everyday objects anymore.
When I was a student teacher, my supervising teacher told me that my use of proverbs didn't register with the students.

Ah yes, Big Brother Bob. A college friend of mine was on his show once.

Grim said...

Is the idea that these proverbs have well-established meanings that only weird people won't grasp, or is it that there are fairly reliable misinterpretations that are characteristic of particular maladies?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

More the former. Idiosyncratic answers can still be considered good. For example, the one about the glass houses is mostly about the fact that glass is a material that will shatter. But some glass is transparent, and so the idea that people can see you being just as evil as the folks you are accusing is also in there, though it is seldom articulated. In our situation, we get people saying "I've heard that, but I never knew what it meant," or "" or "I don't know." We will also get people who have lots of education but can just barely get out "...they do the same thing" or "don't be a hypocrite." I've never heard any patient give a really good answer, because folks in crisis are anxious or distracted.

I have heard a sociopath explain the rolling stone as "if you keep moving they'll never catch you and you'll never get blamed," which is a good abstract answer that is also very revealing. That's rare.

David Foster said...

Related: Things that were once Common Knowledge, but are not now

jaed said...

I think not so much misinterpretation as literalizing the proverb—failure to grasp the analogical meaning. If someone is able to give a very literal answer ("It means you shouldn't throw rocks if you live in a glass house, because you'll break your own windows"), but can't make the next step to the abstract meaning, that tells you something.

I like the sociopath answer. Counter to the more usual interpretation, but totally reasonable.

Texan99 said...

I know the proverb is a warning about the effect when people inevitably throw stones back--i.e, the danger of hypocrisy, or maybe more accurately "judge not lest ye be judged"--but the image that always springs into my mind is of figuring out how to throw the stones in the first place without breaking the glass on the way out. Is that the sociopathic answer?

james said...

When I heard the glass house proverb for the first time, I thought it sounded like fun. But then, I also was disappointed not to get the chainsaw for Christmas that I'd hinted for.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@T99 - not sociopathic, no. The hypocrisy is the abstract meaning one draws out, but it is founded on the concrete meaning of breaking the glass, either by you throwing it and doing that yourself, or some angry retaliatory person breaking your house pretty easily. The transparent nature of the glass is also a concrete piece, but mentioned much less often.

So if you mention only the breaking glass, but not the hypocrisy, the clinician will wonder whether you are not so bright, or perhaps dementing, or delirious, or anxious if you are known to be bright.