The Tale of the Misunderstood Toolmakers

Long ago when humankind was still young, there existed four distinct communities that never visited each other’s lands. Even if they tried to visit each other, they could not, for someone even longer ago had built giant walls between the groups, and they could neither climb the walls nor break them down. Each community lived in its own terrain, told its own stories, spoke its own unique language, and raised its own families. They knew exceedingly little about the other communities if they knew anything at all.

Some people didn’t believe there were other people living outside the walls. Those who had no contact with the portal, who lived far away from it, were suspicious of the portal. Others worshipped it. But that is a story for another day.

The inventors knew there were people outside the walls. From the beginning of time, as far as they knew, they had submitted blueprints of their inventions to the portal. Eventually, they would receive alternative blueprints from the neighbors that they would attempt to decipher.

Aaron the toolmaker lived in a land covered with trees and plants, and his world revolved around growing and harvesting. One day he developed a rake out of wood—he fashioned a long handle and attached a wooden comb to it. He could remove debris and preserve plants with his special tool.   He recorded his invention on a special blueprint form and submitted it to the portal.

In the community next door, Bob pulled Aaron’s blueprint from the portal. He set to work creating the design. He had just enough wood to make a handle but had to use stone to make the rake comb. In Bob’s land, there were many, many rocks. He imagined the mysterious tool from the portal was used to remove rocks so people could plant crops. Once completed he thought the “rake” was an incredibly heavy tool and wondered how anyone could use such a weighty invention to remove rocks. He marveled at the strength of the people in the neighboring community. For his own purposes, he refashioned the rake into a two-pronged tool that was lighter and that removed rocks from the ground. He submitted his revised design to the portal.

Carsten lived in a third adjacent community. His community was swampy, and he was looking for ways to remove plants by chopping their roots and scooping them away.  He inspected the different blueprints, but couldn’t understand their uses. His “rake” turned out to be a hoe, which he could use to chop roots and remove plant matter from swamps. He submitted his design to the portal.

David lived in still another adjacent community that was set on the ocean. People used boats to get around. When he saw the different “rake” designs, he created a harpoon with a curved hook for hunting fish. He offered his revised design to the portal.

One day, Aaron returned to the portal and found everyone else’s blueprints. He had little experience with rocks, and could not imagine how Bob’s tool was used. Likewise, he couldn’t imagine how Carsten’s hoe could protect his plants. David’s harpoon seemed to be a completely different tool, perhaps something used for reaching high in trees.


  1. Can you think of a time in your life when you had trouble explaining an idea, thought, or feeling to someone else?
  2. What is good communication?
  3. What is bad communication?
  4. Whose fault is it when communication fails?
  5. According to The Toolmakers, there are different obstacles that prevent good communication. What are some of these?
  6. Describe a scenario
    1. where you might have trouble sharing your thoughts.
    2. Where you could easily share your thoughts.
  7. What are some ways to promote good communication?

© H. Stewart Carpenter, based on Reddy’s (1979) Toolmakers Paradigm

Source: Reddy, M. J. (1979). The conduit metaphor: A case of frame conflict in our language about language. In A. Ortony (Ed.), Metaphor and Thought (pp. 284–310). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29626-9 paperback

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