Opposite Statements Can Be Equally True

I was standing in the community centre kitchen on Sunday morning. There were already five people squeezed into the small space; I pressed myself into the alcove by the door, keeping an eye out for whether my help was required.

Two proverbs came to mind:

‘Many hands make light work.’

‘Too many cooks spoil the broth.’

I smiled as I considered the apparent contradictions between these statements.

‘Many hands make light work’, Google informs me, means that ‘a task is soon accomplished if several people help’. This proverb refers to the speed of completion, rather than the quality. Though this technique might be accompanied by a feeling of chaos, the food will often reach the table more quickly and create a stronger sense of community.

‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, on the other hand, means that ‘if too many people are involved in a task or activity, it will not be done well’. In this proverb, it is quality that is prioritised, perhaps at the expense of speed. It may take longer to have only one or two people preparing the meal, although there is likely to be a clearer vision.

There are often several solutions to a problem, or two different perceptions, as with numerous people preparing a meal. Opposite statements can both be true. It is good to have many people involved; it is bad to have many people involved. Deciding which view to take depends on your priorities. Is speed the priority? Is it having everyone feel useful? Is it the quality of the result?

Considering the intention of the way in which the task is undertaken is important, but the issues don’t end there. The two proverbs are not clear cut when they apply to real scenarios. A high number of helpers does not guarantee speed – in fact, it can easily slow things down. And a low number of helpers does not guarantee good quality – the result could still be shambolic.

The proverbs focus on different aspects of a task. The two ‘truths’ are not necessarily opposites. Each circumstance requires a different explanation, because life doesn’t fit neatly into boxes. And neither can it fit neatly into a proverb.

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