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What does "Against the Grain" Mean?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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To go against the grain means to go against the generally accepted practice, or societal norms, or simply something that is unpleasant. The phrase may be used in a number of different ways, such as in relation to someone else, or describing an action someone does not want to take. The phrase has been in use for centuries, but was widely popularized and set down in writing by William Shakespeare.

The most common modern usage of this phrase is to describe something strongly against societal expectations. For example, one might say, "It went against the grain, letting your students call you by your first name, and now look at the consequences." In this sense, the phrase is almost exclusively used about someone else, and is nearly always used pejoratively.

A slightly different usage might be to describe something that one needs to do, but that goes against one’s own inclinations. For example, someone might say, "I’m not one to go against the grain, but in this situation I had no choice." It is still used in a pejorative sense, but not as an accusation, more as an acceptance of a situation in which all choices are bad.

Going against societal expectations is not necessarily a bad thing, and in many cases would be lauded. In these cases, however, a different idiom would usually be used. For example, they might say, "She always did march to the beat of her own drum." This has much the same meaning, but the connotations can be much more positive.

In some cases, someone might not want to indicate a negative stance by saying that someone went against expectations, but he or she might not want to applaud the action either. In this case, a more neutral idiom would instead be employed. An example of this would be to say, "All roads lead to Rome." This means simply that there are many different ways of doing something, and that none are necessarily better than the other. One might also say, "It takes all kinds," which would similarly express a sort of acceptance of the fact that things are done differently by different people.

Other idioms have a similar meaning to going against the grain. For example, people often speak of going against the current or against the tide to refer to the same opposition to societal norms. Or someone might talk about swimming up stream when going against those norms introduces hardship that needs to be overcome.

The idiom itself comes from the real world, where planing wood against the grain leads to splinters and a surface that isn’t entirely smooth. The easiest way to plane a piece of wood is to do so with the grain, and this also results in the best final product. So planing would the other way indicates taking an action that is not only difficult, but also leads to a less desirable final product.

Shakespeare first wrote the phrase down in his 1608 play Coriolanus. In it, the character of Sicinius, speaking with Brutus, says "Say, you chose him; More after our commandment than as guided; By your own true affections, and that your minds,; Preoccupied with what you rather must do; Than what you should, made you against the grain; To voice him consul: lay the fault on us."

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Discussion Comments
By kylee07drg — On Aug 30, 2012

I admire people who dare to go against the grain in order to achieve something. I think that complacency and acceptance of the norm cause much bigger problems than challenging standards and making new paths. If it weren't for a few individuals who chose to go against the grain, then we wouldn't have many of our modern inventions.

By orangey03 — On Aug 29, 2012

There was a homeless family in my town that the community really wanted to banish from the street. No one wanted to help them by giving them shelter or money.

My dad went against the grain and put them up in our guest house. Our neighbors were outraged. They thought these people were filthy thieves, but they were just adopting the opinion of the majority.

These people had good hearts, but they had fallen on hard times. Once my dad gave them a place to stay and some new clothes, they were able to look presentable enough to go out and get jobs. They are now living on their own, and it's all because one man went against the grain of the community.

By Kristee — On Aug 28, 2012

@feasting – It's weird how against the grain shaving is painful along the bikini line but actually necessary and normal on your legs. Shaving with the grain there doesn't work nearly as well as going against it.

Much the same can be said of certain professions. For example, a police officer would generally need to go with the grain. However, an artist or a writer would generate much more praise from the public for going against the grain and coming up with something entirely “out there.”

By feasting — On Aug 28, 2012

Sometimes, literally going against the grain can be painful. When I shave against the grain along my bikini line, I end up with red bumps that are very tender.

Likewise, doing some things against the grain can result in hurt feelings. If you are chastised by others for not sticking to the rules, then it can really bring on an ache inside you.

By sherlock87 — On Jan 28, 2011

When people feel that they are alone against the grain in something that they really feel is right, something that might be encouraging to know is that there's a psychological premise that as long as just one person stands up for something or in disagreement of something, it will help cause others to really think about what they believe and not just take sides based on popularity of opinions.

By helene55 — On Jan 26, 2011

Like so many things Shakespeare wrote, it went from being a random line in one of his lesser known plays to a standby idiom about people standing against what is considered acceptable or ordinary.Amazing the effect writers have on language in the time after them.

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