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What is a Storm in a Teacup?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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When someone makes a great fuss over something that is not terribly important, it is known as a “storm in a teacup.” You may also hear the phrase “tempest in a teacup” or “tempest in a teapot,” depending on the region of the world in which you live. In all cases, the phrase is meant to remind people of the relative unimportance of an issue, suggesting that people would be better served by focusing on problems of greater importance.

This slang term references the idea that within the microcosm of a teacup, a small ripple can seem like a big wave, and any sort of jostling or change will result in a ripple or two. However, once one looks outside the teacup, the disturbance is revealed as a minor issue which one might not even notice unless it is pointed out. When someone causes such a problem, they belabor an issue more than they need to.

In many cases, someone makes a storm in a teacup out of a desire for attention. People may greatly exaggerate the circumstances of a situation to attract pity or comment, or to get people fired up about the issue. Others simply enjoy being the center of attention, telling elaborate stories to keep people's thoughts centered on them. Of course, these techniques can backfire, as when one becomes known for making a big deal out of small problems, it can be hard to convince people that a situation is actually serious.

Many politicians use the term in their rhetoric, suggesting that an opponent is making a storm in a teacup about an issue to dismiss that platform or ideas of an opponent. It has also popped up occasionally in court decisions, with judges commenting that a case is a tempest in a teacup and therefore not worthy of attention. Since most judges grow rather cross when forced to try frivolous cases, lawyers as a general rule try to avoid being accused of causing such problems.

A variety of colorful slang terms are used around the world in much the same way that a storm in a teacup is used. For example, one might say that someone is making a mountain out of a molehill, exaggerating a situation dramatically for no good reason. It may also be said that someone's vision and perspective is clouded, making it difficult for them to understand the actual importance of a situation, as in the saying “he can't see the forest for the trees.”

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By Misscoco — On Sep 01, 2011

I think that there is a subtle difference between the two idioms "don't make a mountain out of a molehill" and "a storm in a teacup." Don't make a mountain out of a molehill seems to generally mean to not exaggerate the situation you are in. It's really not that important in the whole scheme of things.

Saying "a storm in a teacup," can mean something a little more subtle. It can be used to refer to someone who is trying to get attention drawn to themselves or to a situation. They are trying to get other people on their side. After a time, people may belittle the person's efforts and say it's all just "a storm in a teacup."

By B707 — On Aug 31, 2011

Interesting, I have never heard the term storm or tempest in a teacup. I have always said, "don't make a mountain out of a mole hill." Maybe it is a regional thing.

I used to use this type of idiom with my daughter when she was growing up. She used to go into high drama when things didn't go right - like her hair, homework, her sister's actions and on and on. If I told her not to make a mountain out of a mole hill, she would answer that it was a big deal, so there!

By w00dchuck41 — On Aug 31, 2011

@ElbowTickle - Sometimes it's better to make a storm in a tea cup than wait for it to get really bad.

My roommate is a good example of that. We moved into together for several months and the whole time -- he hated that I left the toilet lid closed when I was done in the bathroom.

It was such a small thing, I didn't even notice until he slammed it open and demanded that I leave it there. I laughed at him for making it such a big deal, but it had really bothered him.

Me and my roommate made an agreement when we moved in together for the second time. We always bring up the issues that bother us before they fester and get ugly.

So far, no toilet lid rage.

By ElbowTickle — On Aug 30, 2011

I usually call people like this "drama Queens." They use every little thing that happens to them as a huge excuse for attention. The couple of people I know love blowing things way out of proportion.

Every time something bad happens, even something small, my buddy Jim swears that the universe is against him and that his life is going down hill. Yet when something good happens, "it's just luck."

My mom always said that when I was little, I tried to literally turn molehills into miniature mountains -- but I was never dramatic.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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