Curiosity may have "killed the cat," but it animates advocacy

January 2024

I'm the first to admit I'm a word nerd. I geek out over words that capture particular feelings and sentiments and love to know the origin of expressions. There are strings of words we hear so often we may never stop to think what they really mean - or why we say them. Diving into the origins of phrases can uncover some pretty fascinating stuff.

So it was I found myself looking into the phrase "curiosity killed the cat," a creature assumed to have nine lives, given all of the mishaps and mischief they can find. It turns out the original expression was actually "care killed the cat," with "care" in the sense of worrying, fretting, or grieving. Many sources cite the first written version of this expression in the play Every Man in his Humour, written by Ben Jonson in 1598:

"Helter skelter, hang sorrow, care'll kill a Cat, up-tails all, and a Louse for the Hangman."

Over time, the phrase morphed into "curiosity killed the cat" and is used to discourage people from asking questions or learning what they don't yet know (or "need to know," in the opinion of those discouraging more inquiry).

In an era where many have hardened opinions bolstered by pundits who project certainty even devoid of facts, more questions - more curiosity - and more care - more worrying about each other in the most positive sense of the word - would do us a heap of good.

Using "red" and "blue" as shorthand for our political parties, you’ve likely heard that red areas of the country are growing redder and blue areas are bluer. While there’s something to be said for being around people who understand us and where we feel comfortable and understood, our physical separation leads to what Braver Angels' Mónica Guzmán calls a lack of “spontaneous collisions” with those from “the other side.” Given how vastly we all tend to exaggerate misperceptions of “the other side,” our blind spots can become dangerously large. If we stay only amongst “our people,” that won’t change.

To shape laws, policies, and systems, we need to know how people are being impacted by them - and who supports or opposes what we're advocating - and why. Anyone familiar with bridging divides knows the first step is not trying to convince someone to agree with you; seeking to immediately change someone else is a non-starter. Instead, seek first to understand them.

Getting curious means trying to understand how someone came to believe what they believe. “Why” prompts defensiveness while “how” prompts their personal story. Once you understand that, you can have productive conversations instead of talking - or yelling - past each other. 

I've been thinking a lot about curiosity over the past several months, so much so that we've adopted Radical Curiosity as one of our core values (and I even made curiosity my WOTY - Word Of The Year - for 2024.) To hear the panel discussion that jumpstarted my thinking, here's a friend link to the full post. 

As always, we welcome your thoughts on advocacy communications. How does curiosity support your work? Connect with us using the form below.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO


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