The parliamentary table metaphor

In parliamentary procedure, when you want to suspend discussion of a motion, you “lay it on the table.” And when you want to put it back into consideration, you “take it from the table.”

My department uses Robert’s Rules for faculty meetings, and I have always found this confusing. A big part of my confusion comes from the fact that we meet around a big conference table. So if you were to lay something on the table, it would be at the focus of everybody’s attention.

To date I have been unable to overcome this interference by sheer rote memorization of the terms “lay on the table” and “take off the table.” But I have found it marginally effective to summon up a competing metaphor. Lucky for me, our meeting room has another, smaller table on the side, away from most people’s attention. So in order to remember what the terms mean, I remind myself to think of the side table when I visualize the metaphor, which usually does the trick.

As I often think to myself when I make these weird introspective observations: there must be a dissertation in there somewhere.

p.s. It turns out that I’m not the only person who’s confused by this. Wikipedia says that in Britain the table metaphor is reversed from the American usage, which has apparently led to some serious cross-cultural miscommunication in the past.

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