Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims:
Familiarity Breeds Contempt

By Richard Eyre

Note:This column appears every two weeks . with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Cliches archives

What does this one mean anyway? I’ve heard it all my life to the point that its repetition gives it credibility.  I asked one friend what he thought it meant, and he said, “There are two things you should never watch being made – hot dogs and laws.” His point was that the actuality behind some things ruins any illusions we have of their purity. When we get to know things or people, we see their faults, their imperfections, and supposedly we begin to despise them or hold them in contempt.

But is it really so?

Or is the opposite closer to the truth? Isn’t it nearly impossible not to care for something or someone we really know? When we know someone, “warts and all,” don’t we inevitably develop an empathy, a concern, a caring? Isn’t it a lack of interest, a lack of understanding that breeds suspicion, enmity, and disdain?

The problem with this old clich is that it gives a kind of sanction to the deterioration of a relationship. Marriages end in divorce because we “get to know each other too well.” We move too often and fail to put down roots because we’re “tired of the same old place.” The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence (to use a closely related clichd), because we’re unsatisfied with the familiar.


As a college student I worked one summer as an intern for a U.S. senator in Washington, D.C. In an effort to save money while driving back west to school in the fall, I advertised on the intern bulletin board for a passenger to share the trip with me. The night before I was to leave, I got a call from someone who introduced herself as Kathy and said she was headed for Colorado and would love a ride. I told her I was in a hurry and wanted to drive straight through, and she had no problem with that. She sounded pleasant and enthusiastic (even attractive, I imagined) so I agreed to pick her up the next morning.

The best way to explain what happened the next morning is bluntly. Kathy weighed three hundred pounds. She had nothing with her but a huge tattered foot locker (we were forced to tie the truck lid partially closed to accommodate it) and a big paper bag full of bananas. She was not a Senate intern but noticed my card on the bulletin board one day while she was roaming around “trying to get a glimpse” of Teddy Kennedy.” And she was not returning to school, she just wanted to see Colorado because she had “heard it was pretty.”

It gets worse. She ate bananas nonstop, tossing the yellow peels nonchalantly over her shoulder into the back seat. She had an opinion on everything, always negative, including my car, my driving, the broken air-conditioning, and the humid weather. After five or six hours I said I was getting a little sleepy and asked her if she’d take a turn at the wheel. “Oh, I don’t drive,” she said. I was flabbergasted. “How will we drive straight through?” I asked, “I’m really good at keeping people awake,” she answered.

The third time we stopped for gas, I asked her if she might want to pay this time.  I almost expected the answer I got: “Oh, I don’t have any money!”

I’ll spare you the rest of the details.  The point is that they trip took forty-two hours and that unfamiliarity bred contempt that was gradually dissolved by familiarity. Since there was nothing to do but talk (and it did keep me awake), we gradually got acquainted. Her bizarre habits and appearance were easier to understand as I came to know her past – orphaned, raised in poverty by an elderly grandmother, trying now to find a place where she could escape her past and start fresh.  There was an interesting, refreshing candor about her, no pretense, no ax to grind. After I got past judging her and resenting the situation, and started listening because there was nothing better to do, I found myself liking her.


As with so many of these old clichs, the problem is that accepting it causes negative or counterproductive behavior. If we believe that familiarity breeds contempt, it can cause us to “keep our distance,” to hold ourselves back from really knowing others or fully revealing ourselves.

What we need in the world, and what most of us need in our individual lives, is  not more facades or more isolation but more openness, more candor, more of being ourselves and sharing ourselves, more of saying and less of leaving things unsaid (see next column!)

Commitmentis a word that seems to go in and out of fashion. Avoiding it, we sometimes tell ourselves, gives us freedom and autonomy. But in fact the only guarantees of no commitments are loneliness and purposelessness. It is commitment that gives us strength and vision, and commitment makes us unafraid of familiarity.

The reason nearly half of today’s marriages end in divorce is that we have let ourselves become wary of a good marriage’s two necessities: commitment and familiarity. In the security of a total commitment, a complete sharing and total familiarity can develop that breeds empathy, understanding and love.

The new maxim:


Enjoy thinking about that one! In another fortnight (two weeks) we will explore one of the most firmly rooted old clichs of all – the one that says “some things are better left unsaid.”

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