Those Who Live In Glass Houses Shouldn Throw Stones Essay

It appears to me that this explanation of "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" is incorrect, or at least, ambiguous. That people shouldn't criticize a fault that they share themselves is not given in the 'story', and it suggests that the saying is instruction about hypocrisy, which is supported by the 'see also' association. However, it is my sense that this is also a commonly understood interpretation and use of the saying, leaving this entry hanging between what it means as a story, and what it means as a cliche.

"People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones" is not about hypocrisy but about vulnerability. There is no suggestion of 'the same kind of fault' in the verbal image we are given. To be about hypocrisy it would have to be something like "People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones at other people's glass houses" perhaps, or "People who live in glass houses shouldn't say it's wrong to throw stones, and then do so anyway". The pot, in this saying, doesn't call the kettle black.

There are two actual meanings that are possible. One is that you shouldn't start a fight when you are vulnerable, something like "People with glass jaws shouldn't start fights". You throw a stone and when your target retaliates, your house instead of protecting you will shatter. The other is that you shouldn't act aggressively in a fragile structure, as in "People who live in paper houses shouldn't play with matches". People who live around expensive porcelain antiques shouldn't throw stones, or anything else, for the same reason. In this sense it might apply in a delicate negotiation, when harsh rhetoric could destroy the process.

The first of those meanings is the only one that is used. The stones that are thrown are presumed by most people to be thrown at someone else, outside of the house, as an attack. And the reason it's such a bad idea is then obvious: retaliation in kind will result in the destruction of your home. You shouldn't attack when you are vulnerable.

The sense of 'hypocrisy' arises I think because the saying could be used in this context: "Don't start a fight in an area in which you are vulnerable". Don't make fun of someone's speling when they can then turn around and say "You can't even spell 'spelling'." This conveys the sense that you shouldn't criticize others for weaknesses that you share yourself. Not, however, because it's hypocritical, but because it is strategically weak: it is a poor choice of territory on which to fight. Don't start a fight in a swimming pool, if you don't know how to swim. The proverb doesn't suggest moral self-contradiction, or the creation of a rule by which the rule-maker could himself be convicted: it is strategic advice given with ironic intent, not moral judgment.

Its correct use is therefore to imply weakness or charge fault, in the guise of advising caution. "He told you not to do business with me because my accounting was 'tricky'? He'd better watch out the IRS doesn't get an anonymous tip about him. People who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones." It is more natural-sounding as in this example when the weakness - dodgy accounting - is the same as the thing that is attacked. But it doesn't have to be, to preserve the explicit sense of the proverb.

Because of the sense of 'what's natural' in the use of this saying it is reasonable to associate it with hypocrisy. It has something of that sense about it in popular usage. The culture has supplied to the single snapshot of someone standing beside a glass house throwing a stone, the additional view that it is another glass house at which stones are being thrown, and then drawn that into a moral cliche about improving self before criticizing others.

As with anything in language, it becomes a question of what is meant by people who say it, and what is understood by people who hear it. As the idea of 'popular usage' moves from single words or phrases to a whole miniature illustrative story, the degree to which "what is really there" can be semi-deliberately misunderstood is the question I am putting here.

I would suggest that the 'correct' interpretation of the saying is something like "People who are vulnerable shouldn't attack others, especially in ways that draw attention to their own areas of vulnerability".

I agree with this critique and comment. This expression, in its original text, is not so much about hypocrisy as it is of not criticizing others until your own house is in order. However, it doesn't necessarily mean don't criticize because you have done the SAME thing... similar things, maybe, but not the very same thing. For instance, don't criticize and/or spread rumors about someone you think has "stolen a tire", though there is no evidence of such, when you yourself have been convicted of stealing a car!

The actual meaning is closer to that of "if you can't take it, don't dish it out".[edit]

The actual meaning is closer to that of "if you can't take it, don't dish it out". 2602:30A:C0C6:D860:0:0:0:38 21:01, 10 December 2014 (UTC)

I think the usefulness of this saying is actually in its dual meaning[edit]

It's halfway between saying "don't start a fight you can't win" and "don't be a hypocrite," and sort of says both simultaneously.

To be used to maximum effect, the phrase "people who live in glass houses don't throw stones" should be used in a situation where you are not only criticizing someone for attacking someone else when they are vulnerable to counter-attack, but when that vulnerability springs from the very thing that they are attacking the other person for.

It's a little different than just saying that they're a hypocrite, because it implies that they're a uniquely vulnerable hypocrite. It's also very different from merely saying they're vulnerable. The vulnerability has to be itself based on the hypocrisy of what they're doing. A rough translation would go something like this: "How can you criticize someone else for doing something that you yourself are guilty of -- much less when you're the guiltiest one there is?"

            I pull my iron down from the top of the clothes dryer, where it’s been idling for weeks. After dusting it off and checking for bottom-gunk, I carry the iron to the kitchen sink, push the red plastic steam valve down—as I learned to do as a child—and fill it from the tap with a thin stream of water. As water trickles into the chamber, I feel a stab of affection for this simple appliance that I rarely rely on anymore.
            I head to the basement where I have to hunt for the ironing board. It seems that my husband moved it to hang some suit jackets encased in dry cleaner bags from an overhead pipe. Hoisting the board over my shoulder, I carry it up to the dining room, where I open the metal legs with one swift hand motion, setting off the signature ironing board screech.
            Encircling the board with the sage green cotton dress I will wear this evening to lead a tree tour at the botanic garden,  I pick up the now plugged in and steaming iron. Wetting my finger with spit, I lightly touch the bottom to elicit that little readiness hiss my mother taught me to test for so many years ago. I lift the steam valve, place the iron on the creased hem of the dress, and begin to move it slowly back and forth, applying just the right amount of pressure. The iron makes its comforting hiss music, my wrinkled dress becomes smooth and steam rises around my face. I turn the dress several times on the board, and soon I’m holding aloft a freshly pressed dress.
            Do women always do this?  Hold up our freshly ironed garments? Are we simply examining for the stray missed crease, or is this a small moment of celebration?
            Ironing the dress comprises the most relaxed minutes of my day. My husband and grown daughter are at work, my teen-aged son is off recording music, and the house is quiet.  The familiar ritual, now so rarely performed, involves communion with heat and steam, soft fabric and an appliance that doesn’t require electronic commands. It’s a break from cramming my head with botanical and historical facts that I will hopefully later be able to recall effortlessly as I lead my group through the botanic garden.
            This moment on a summer day is a far cry from my first experiences with ironing. I grew up in a household where ironing was an extreme activity. My mother was a fanatical ironer and housekeeper and although she no longer has three young children constantly soiling clothes, she still has her “ironing days.”
            As a child I sensed that ironing lay at the heart of many unspoken things in our household. While my dad went off to teach, coach sports and later headmaster during the day, my mother stayed home to wrestle with the messiness of the domestic scene. There were rugs to vacuum, floors to wash, basins to scrub and endless piles of pre-synthetic deeply wrinkled clothes.
            Most of the jobs were done in a flurry of haste with kids afoot – my sister, brother and me and our noisy friends. But the ironing was different. The ironing was solitary. There was a zone around the ironing space, a shield almost, that we instinctively knew not to penetrate.
            There my mother would be, in one of the rooms of our dormitory apartment or even an empty dorm room, her “spit curls” swept back with a colored kerchief, her board, her iron, her bowl of water for stubborn creases, and her pile. The pile seemed to arise from the earth itself, spilling everywhere.
            Her face was usually pinched, she wasn’t talking, but she was ironing, yes she was ironing, hour after hour. It was spectacular to peek in and see the way the mussed piles morphed into shaped outfits hanging on hangers. My little brother’s razor-creased shorts and pants and shirts, my sister’s and my identical dresses, my dad’s outfits down to his underwear.  In later years my brother would tell me that Dad was the talk of the school locker room with his creased “skivvies” and ironed t-shirts.
            There was something else about the ironing zone. Music flowed from it. Some days it was the staticky AM station from Springfield, Vermont, which made me feel nauseous and headachy. But it wasn’t always fitful pop music from Springfield. There were days when Mom listened to her vinyl recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. There were days she listened to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet.  I still picture ironing when I hear music ranging from “Purple People Eater” to Tchaikovsky’s fateful lyricism.
            I sensed the volcanic nature of the laundry pile and I tried to help. I ironed myself, from the age of six or seven, and until my head ached. When I babysat the faculty neighbor children, I tried to relieve those moms of their ironing and housekeeping duties too. I’ll never forget the puzzled look on a young mother’s face when she came home to find not only that her three wild children were sleeping soundly but also that all their clothes were ironed and hanging on the bathroom door.
            I’ve never had a real conversation with my mother about ironing, although she’s deflected her share of good-natured barbs from the family about her ongoing zealousness for perfect creases and her shunning of commercial cleaners. I’m not sure I’d want to because I’m not sure that— despite the often pinched look on her face and the metastatic nature of the laundry pile—those moments with iron in hand, children elsewhere, didn’t represent her most uninterrupted  moments of communion with her inner life. Perhaps they still do.
            Later in the summer I help my daughter pack up and move to Chapel Hill to start a PhD program. Her clothes always hang smoothly on her slender body and she never seems to need an iron. As we cruise the aisles of her local box store for kitchen and cleaning supplies, I think about how glad I am that she won’t have to make space in her new apartment for a clunky board and a rarely needed appliance. But, as we fill the cart with such necessities as a food processor and microwave, I’m also secretly hoping she finds some meditative moments of domestic ritual to clear her head after hours spent in her busy lab and on-line.
            A few days after returning home, I receive a message from my daughter, who is still shopping: “Today I almost bought an ironing board. There was a pretty light blue one at Target with white flowers on it and I suddenly thought it would be fun to own one. Then I remembered that I don’t know how to iron.” 

Bio: Melanie Choukas-Bradley is the author of three natural history books, including City of Trees (University of Virginia Press), and a long-time contributor to The Washington Post. Her stories have also been published in Washingtonian Magazine, Bethesda Magazine, The Bark, The Audubon Naturalist News and many other publications. She has been a guest on The Diane Rehm Show, All Things Considered, and many other Washington, DC radio and television programs. Melanie is a naturalist who leads tree tours and field trips for the United States Botanic Garden, the Audubon Naturalist Society and the Nature Conservancy.

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