Those Meddlesome Metaphors!
“Biggest bang for the buck!”….”Firing on all cylinders”….”Let’s bury the hatchet.”
Besides my love for spouse, family, great friends, great books – and, eh, ruffling a few feathers every now and then – my love affair with the English language dates back as far as my memory allows.
The truly fascinating thing about the English language – yes, and other languages too – is that it has the power to inform as well as misinform, heal as well as it can hurt and bring clarity as well as it can obfuscate. Which bring us to the topic of today’s narrative…the metaphor.
Hey, ever notice how metaphors – figures of speech in which one concept is used in place of another to suggest an analogy – have etched themselves into everyday conversations? Ever wonder how an overuse of metaphors may lead to unintentional exclusion, particularly for those from other cultures who may not have the foggiest idea of what we’re talking about? Hey, I admit to using colorful language myself on occasion.
Inarguably, effective communication is essential in our world. Always has been and always will be. And add to that the fact that people don’t – most of them anyway – wake up in the morning wondering “who can I go out to exclude by the way I communicate today?” Now let’s not excuse the fact that there are some who may use “ten dollar words” and metaphors to confuse. But whatever our motivation, we sometimes end up excluding others if we overuse metaphors in the way we communicate.
Here’s a list of common metaphors and some tongue-in-cheek thoughts that could be racing through the minds of the listener (those in parenthesis are mine).
METAPHOR: I’M THINKING:
- “She stabbed me in the back.”
- “Let’s string them up.”
- “Kill them with kindness.”
- “Give her enough rope to hang herself.”
- “I run a tight ship.”
- “Let’s take the bull by the horn!”
- “It’s all Greek to me.”
- “Don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite!”
- “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!”
- “We’re up to our behinds in alligators.”
- (And you’re not in a hospital or morgue?)
- (As a Black person, that sounds like lynching!)
- (Hum, since when could kindness kill?)
- (see #2 above)
- (Yes, the Titanic!”)
- (Go ahead, I’ll watch from the sideline.)
- (Or Spanish, or English, or French, or Russian?)
- (Okay, so why don’t you go first then?)
- (Guess I’m not young enough to know it all, huh?)
- (Hope that he does not like dark meat like mine.)
Many metaphors are sports related, traditionally U.S. male oriented. Examples: that’s a slam dunk; hit it out of the park; the ball is in your court; hit the ground running; playing hardball; skate to where the puck. They may not be offensive, yet could be extremely hard to understand for non-English speakers. And some may interpret them as implicitly male oriented, whether intended that way or not.
Some metaphors can insult people’s intelligence: that’s a no brainer; she’s clueless, and some are animal oriented and could offend anyone who does not want to be compared to an animal. Examples: she will bulldog it; they are like herding cats.
And there are the language put downs – Pardon my French. Some are violence oriented: just shoot from the hip; he needs a slap on the wrist; take a stab at it; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Now the truth about metaphors is that we sometimes use them without much thought as to how they may confuse the listener. So how do we know? What are the danger signs?
Paying attention to immediate reactions, the nonverbal ones in particular, is a good place to start. Total silence, “looks of confusion,” eyes suddenly cast downward and frowning may be signs that what you said may have had unintended consequences. And if you notice that some in a room will lean toward the person next to them, mouth cuffed, obviously whispering, there’s a chance that they’re asking that person to clarify what was just said.
Okay, say that someone throws out a metaphor and you don’t have the faintest idea what it means. What do you do? First, assume a positive intent. Ask them politely to explain the comment. Chances are they will do so since they too have a vested interest in being understood. Don’t forget to thank them.
And it is here where well-meaning third party, or ally, can be of enormous help if the person does not feel comfortable questioning the comment. An ally can always step in and in such a way that doesn’t assume exclusive intent on the part of the person who makes the comment. Taking the metaphor user off-line and giving them feedback is both doable and well worth the effort.
Now if you wish to respond publicly as an ally, here are some examples of effective retorts:
Metaphor: Ally’s response:
- “He blew a gasket during the meeting!”
- “C’mon, that’s water under the bridge.”
- “Yes, he did seem to be very upset!”
- “You are right. That’s now in the past.”
Now the point is not to take fun and spontaneity out of our interactions. On the other hand, it is equally as important to foster an environment that fosters open and respectful communications, language that includes, language that is sensitive, language that’s respectful.
Long story short, (yikes, another metaphor, huh) a sure way to isolate others is to overwhelm them with those meddlesome metaphors!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, story teller and senior associate with Diversity Wealth. He is also a member of the Cross Cultural Academy, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, New York-based Catalyst and the American Diversity Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.