Metaphors are like, everywhere
Posted by danspira
About a year ago I used some old, discarded lumber to build a pair of 6 foot long, 6 inch deep shelves. When I first picked up the wood, I decided that the cleaner side of each piece would be the face-up side. The side with more stains and blemishes would go face-down. However, after I sanded the wood down with progressively finer grit sandpaper, and then stained and lacquered both faces, I realized that the older, more experienced face had a deeper, more beautiful character to it, and was in fact the better choice.
Some people enjoy metaphors more than other people. By “metaphors” I’m refering to the whole range of metaphorical language: similes, analogies, symbols and so on. Some people love metaphors, and see them constantly. I find myself in that category, especially when I do things like gardening or salvaging lumber. Planting seeds. Pruning and removing off the weak and dying leaves so that the rest of a plant can be stronger. That sorta thing.
But there are many people who don’t like metaphors at all, and if you try to explain things to them using a metaphor, they will get easily confused or annoyed. I haven’t exactly figured out the pattern in communication or cognitive styles on this… and it’s an important distinction, especially in teaching and training. Maybe it’s like as if you were wandering through a desert and all you had was a telescope and a pad of paper and… oh wait, never mind.
“Metaphors are Tools”
“Metaphors are a Platform”
“Metaphors are Mindfunnels”
“Metaphors are Taffy’
“Metaphors are like a Box of Sins”
..all so true, though the last one is technically a simile.
Metaphors relate to the process of lateral thinking… they are either the product of it, and/or they’re the trigger for it. I dunno… all I know is I require metaphors sometimes, to process a problem or idea. As always, I’m willing to accept research funding and access to some grad students and a MRI scanner, to investigate this. Until then, I guess I will have to be just another would-be-cognitive-theory-pundit.
There is also a blurring point between metaphor, idiom and language. What can start as a popular metaphor/idea-virus, will then break into the body of spoken language and become a common idiom, and, after a while, eventually makes its way into the DNA of the language itself and become written word. Now, the annoyance of elaborate metaphors is counterbalanced by using concrete examples, so before my double-helix-abstraction unravels, here’s an illustration: The phrase “the early bird catches the worm” was a proverb/metaphor which eventually yielded the noun “early bird.” The adjective “dogged” is another example. All this to say that metaphors are a natural part of the way we think and construct language. Anyone who says they hate all metaphors is just being bullheaded.
Beyond the cognitive part, another aspect of whether a metaphor resonates with a person has to do with its content. Sports people will enjoy sports metaphors. Foodies will enjoy food metaphors. Interwebs people will enjoy LOLCATZ metaphors. But it’s not just about content, it’s about how that content positioned. The tone and spin of the metaphor will make it more or less palatable to a given audience. A recent example from work:
CONTEXT: Teaching about the importance and value of diversity in an organization.
METAPHOR: Nature / Ecosystems
POSSIBLE POSITIONING APPROACH: Diversity is crucial to achieving balance and harmony. Life is richer when we weave together our cultural differences into a beautiful organic tapestry of co-existence, respect and appreciation. So, that’s what being a team is all about. Save the rainforest!
ALTERNATE POSITIONING APPROACH: Diversity is crucial for survival. When an environment comes under stress, it will be more resilient if it incorporates different areas of strength. Mono-cultures risk catastrophic collapse under a single pressure. So, that’s what being a team is all about. Prepare for battle!
Who says metaphors aren’t potent?