11

I shouldn't have talked back to him. I know where I stand.

I shouldn't have talked back to him. I know my place.

What's difference between the two sentences and the difference between I know where I stand and I know my place? In contexts like this, are they interchangeable?

  • 1
    "I know my place" is always negative. "I know where I stand" has two meanings, it can be either negative or positive. – Fattie Dec 4 '18 at 11:14
31

These two idiomatic expressions have significantly different implications...

I know where I stand
I have a clearly-defined opinion (on some contextually-relevant topic).
Often carries the strong implication that I don't want to discuss the issue - because I've already made up my mind, so there's no point in talking to people who only want to persuade me to change my mind.
Effectively My mind is made up, and you will not convince me to change my opinion.

I know my place
I realise that I have low "social status" in the current context.
Often with the implication that I shouldn't say what I think (or even contribute to any debate on the current topic). I am expected to simply endorse the opinions of those with higher status and/or more power than me.
Effectively I am servile, and must do/think only what I'm told to by my superiors.


Given the preceding context (I shouldn't have talked back to him), the first example would normally be understood to mean that I shouldn't have wasted my time talking to him. Obviously he only wanted to engage me in debate in hopes of persuading me to change my position, but I was never going to allow that to happen anyway, because my position is "fixed, not up for debate".

The second example would normally be understood to mean that it was socially / politically unwise of me to disagree with him - because he has more power than me, it was dangerous / impertinent of me to challenge him.


EDIT: This question obviously generates a lot of interest, so I thought it might be useful to consider the far less common assertion I know my position, which could be used with either of the above senses...

pic

Personally, I feel that the two different idiomatic meanings aren't entirely arbitrary - the reason they've been assigned this way is at least partly because to stand is normally a voluntary act (often against resistance - consider withstand, stand up to, take a stand). Whereas to be placed [somewhere] is effectively a "passive (servile)" action.

As a class-obsessed Brit, I can't resist adding a link to the classic I know my place comedy sketch (from The Frost Report, 1966, with John Cleese, Ronnie Barker, and Ronnie Corbett), where physical height is amusingly conflated with social status. British humour at its best!

  • 1
    i Believe that the most common way that is expressed is “What is your relationship with your family” – DMate Dec 2 '18 at 15:13
  • 2
    @SoumyaGhosh What do you mean by somebody's "position" in their family? – Anthony Grist Dec 2 '18 at 15:30
  • 1
    @SoumyaGhosh no, you would only use "knows his place" there and it would mean he has lower social status than others. "He knows where he stands" doesn't really fit the context—the phrase means he has a set opinion on a particular issue, but the sentence isn't referring to such an issue. – Kevin Dec 2 '18 at 19:49
  • 9
    In a broad sense, they are sort of opposites—"I know where I stand" implies a certain level of resistance or defiance, but "I know my place" implies subservience. – Kevin Dec 2 '18 at 19:51
  • 1
    While "I know my place" may have connotations of low social status, it also may be similar to "I stay in my lane". It's not so much a question of higher or lower, but also comes into play with things like a police officer doing his job (apprehending the suspect), not the job of the judge who supervises the trial, the jury who decides the suspect's guilt/innocence, or the legislator who wrote the law the suspect is charged with violating. – Monty Harder Dec 3 '18 at 20:06
18

The idiom "know where you stand" has at least three possible meanings ...

  • Knowing what your opinion on a subject is;

  • Knowing what your situation is, and in particular what your responsibilities are; and

  • Knowing how someone feels about you;

    ... but none of them are the same as "know my place", which is

  • Accepting a subservient position within a social group.

How you should interpret the particular examples you give in the question depends a bit on the exact scenario, but in a typical case both sentences might mean that talking back was a poor decision because the person you were talking back to had authority over you. However, the first phrasing suggests that you are only concerned about the risk of retaliation, whereas the second suggests that you actually believe that it was wrong of you to talk back under the circumstances.

I shouldn't have talked back to him. I know where I stand. - talking back to him was unwise, because it wasn't going to achieve anything and he might retaliate against me.

I shouldn't have talked back to him. I know my place. - it was socially unacceptable for me to talk back to him under these circumstances.

While there may be some situations in which the two idioms have more nearly the same meaning, they are unlikely to be completely interchangeable in any realistic scenario.


In response to your comments on the other answer:

What's your place in your family? - this is not an example of the "knowing your place" idiom. Here, the question is more literal: what position do you hold? I'm not sure a native speaker would be likely to ask the question in this way, but it would probably be understood.

Where do you stand in your family? - no native speaker would put the question in this way and it might be misunderstood as asking how your family feels about you.

When someone is misbehaving with him [John] just accepts it because he knows where he stands - implies that John does not care about the misbehaviour.

When someone is misbehaving with him [John] just accepts it because he knows his place. - implies that John feels that he cannot complain about the misbehaviour because of his inferior social position.

  • 1
    Knowing your place doesn't exactly mean "Accepting a subservient position within a social group". It means knowing what your place in the hierarchy is, which includes both accepting those above you but also knowing who's below you. It has the connotation of accepting a subservient position because it's not salient otherwise, but it doesn't necessarily mean just a subservient position. Darth Vader doesn't challenge the Emperor because he knows his place, but that doesn't mean that his position in the Empire overall is subservient. – Acccumulation Dec 3 '18 at 22:10
  • @Acccumulation, it doesn't mean that your position is the most subservient, no, but I don't think it would normally be used by someone in the upper part of the social group in question. For example, I wouldn't expect to hear it from a CEO, even though they are subordinate to the board of directors, or by a Vice President when referring to the CEO. But it might I suppose be used both by junior managers when comparing themselves with middle management and by middle managers when comparing themselves to upper management. It implies a significant gap, not just a marginal one. – Harry Johnston Dec 3 '18 at 23:20
  • ... and traditionally, at least, it implies that you accept that subservient position as being part of the rightful order of things. I've only seen it used sarcastically, or in a disapproving fictional context. – Harry Johnston Dec 4 '18 at 0:46
  • These examples were very helpful. Thanks @HarryJohnston – Soumya Ghosh Dec 4 '18 at 15:16
  • And thank you too @Acccumulation, i somehow made it up in my mind that "know where I stand" could mean the same as "know my place". Like maybe I know where i stand refer to your position in the hierarchy, but after all these answers, i think i've come to know better. – Soumya Ghosh Dec 4 '18 at 15:23
0

"I know where I stand" can mean something similar to "I know my place". The meanings mentioned by other answers are also possible interpretations. Disambiguating what meaning is meant becomes easier if the phrase continues for a few more words:

"I know where I stand on gun control" would mean you know what your position on that issue is.

"I know where I stand with Alice" would mean you know what Alice's opinion of you is (and generally suggests that the opinion isn't favorable). This might be related to the other meaning, in that "I know where I stand with Alice" means roughly the same as "I know where Alice stands on me", although the latter isn't a phrasing I've ever heard. This meaning could also be used with respect to a larger group, e.g. "I know where I stand in the company".

I agree Kevin's comment on another answer that "I know my place" suggests subservience and acceptance of your place, while "I know where I stand" is more likely to be defiant (or perhaps bitter), although this depends somewhat on tone of voice.

In your specific example of "I shouldn't have talked back to him", the two sentences are largely interchangeable, but "I know where I stand" fits slightly better if the reason is due to his personal opinion of you, while "I know my place" is better if it is your relative social standings that are the issue.

  • I must disagree with the idea that preceding I shouldn't have talked back to him makes I know where I stand more likely. I'd say it's precisely the opposite. If the speaker says he regrets talking back to someone, that means he disagreed (by implication, dismissively or rudely). The reason for his regret is obvious if we assume he spoke "out of line" (it wasn't his place to disagree with someone of higher status), but we have to contrive a much more complex set of connections if we assume he had a fixed position, so discussing it was just a waste of time. – FumbleFingers Dec 3 '18 at 16:40
  • @FumbleFingers I'm not saying that "I shouldn't have talked back to him" makes "I know where I stand" more likely. I'm saying that the reason why I shouldn't have talked back to him determines which of "I know where I stand" or "I know my place" is the better option. – Ray Dec 3 '18 at 22:30
  • We don't actually know that aspect of the context (why should I not have talked back to him?). But my real point is that even absent context, the two alternatives have very different "default implications", and although you would be understood if you used the "wrong" one (so long as your audience did know the relevant context), making the "non-idiomatic" choice would probably be noticed as "marked". – FumbleFingers Dec 4 '18 at 14:41

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.