The Magic of Metaphor

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Markus Spiske

The dashing lady sitting across the brushed metal cafe table has a pleasant smile, a quick wit, and speaks intelligibly with passion. I desperately want to like her, but below my surface-level attraction I cannot deny the surging electromagnetic repulsion dialing up in intensity with every passing moment. She seems nice - what gives? With a bolt of awareness, I realize the charge of her words. Spoiler: it isn't positive.

How many times have you felt an urgent "abort! abort!" in a conversation with a seemingly pleasant individual? Creepers and malicious actors aside - I firmly believe they are a small minority - what signals our intuition to lean in or opt out of any one connection?

In the past, I've struggled with being a gloriously awkward turtle in social settings. Part of that is the confusing cognitive dissonance I've felt in the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of a new connection's opening moments. Certain aspects seem enticing and intriguing, while something I can't quite name makes me want to excuse myself to the bathroom for the 19th time in the last hour. I should probably get my social bladder checked.

I bow in reverence to the clarity and volume of my "run away!" intuition. And I also honor the vulnerability and humanity of individuals on their personal journey of awareness and expression. There must be more dials and buttons on the control panel of connection than the big, red EJECT button.

I've known and felt for a while that a large area of that control panel is devoted to content (what we say) and context (and how we say it). Recently, I discovered a foundational layer of understanding: metaphors.

In short, the words we choose illuminate our cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, and most importantly, our core values. In so doing, our metaphors convey a multi-dimensional meaning far more complex than the dictionary definitions of the words we share. How we speak speaks volumes of us.

From a more proactive lens, diligent metaphor design is precision engineering for meaning and understanding. The faster I can process your resonant metaphors, the sooner I can refactor my content into a context that is easy and intuitive for you to understand.

These insights was spurred by the rigorous analysis of the linguistic formulations and philosophical implications of metaphors in the book Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. I'll unpack a sliver of their ideas and, most importantly, how I am applying resonant core concepts to amplify an inclusive, connective way of relating.

Metaphors are everywhere in our daily lives

Metaphor can be understood as "one thing by way of another". This is most often considered a figure of speech such as "an ocean of trouble" or "the dance of the argument" but Lakoff and Johnson take a more expansive approach by offering metaphors as conceptual frameworks.

They start the book by highlighting the ubiquity of metaphor and it's centrality to our very being.

> We have found ... that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

The only things that aren't metaphors, in fact, are literal statements with literal definitions. If I say "This is a chair" then I am pointing to a physical object that has a societally shared and agreed upon label of "chair". This is not a metaphor because the chair is not seen or expressed by way of another thing.

When I say "My energy is low" then I am invoking a container metaphor that highlights the volumetric qualities of energy such that sometimes my "energy tank" can be high and other times it can be low. Not surprisingly, metaphors are most common with complex concepts, internal experiences, or intangible abstractions (like emotions, philosophies, and ideas). In other words, almost everything we talk about.

Now that I have this lens, I'm noticing that 95%+ of all day-to-day conversation is oriented around metaphors. I'm also noticing in my thought patterns that the metaphors I choose subtly imply and guide implications and conclusions. That means mastering the skill and art of metaphor design can be hugely positive for facilitating resonant connections.

Metaphors are used to foster understanding

Metaphors play a very important function in organizing ideas, thoughts, and actions.

In allowing us to focus on one aspect of a concept (e.g., the battling aspects of arguing), a metaphorical concept can keep us from focusing on other aspects of the concept that are inconsistent with that metaphor.

In other words, the purpose of a metaphor is to take complex, multi-faceted concepts and highlight certain aspects while hiding others. Seen through this pinhole, we selectively focus and fade to facilitate understanding. Maggie Appleton has a beautiful visual approach to showcasing this concept.

This is done so frequently and fluidly that, for the vast majority of people, focusing and fading is a subconscious act. In fact, stopping to think about what any given metaphor is intended to highlight can be jarring and unsettling because it can bring up unexpected dissonant notes we didn't realize we were playing in our conversational composition.

The reflection of how metaphors foster understanding by highlighting and hiding has two critical implications in my world:

  1. When I use a metaphor, what meaning am I trying to transmit?
  2. When I hear someone else's metaphor, what meaning do I think they are trying to transmit? (Did I understand their intention correctly? If not, how can I translate so I do understand better? If yes, does their intended meaning have meaning to me?)

By sprinkling in this spice of awareness to my recipes of conversation and thought, I've already found a more palatable platter of connection. This reflection is especially useful for connecting with individuals that come from different cultures or contexts.

Metaphor understanding reflects our experiences and backgrounds

The same exact words, with the same exact inflection and intonation, can mean very different things in different settings. For example, the phrase "Her performance was more explosive than the atomic bomb" could be intended as a high order compliment in American sports, but it would be unbelievably insensitive and rude in Japanese society.

That's because metaphors do not have any inherent meaning - their meaning is imbued by the personal knowledge and experiences of the recipient.

If I say, "That concert was louder than a sound camp at Burning Man playing at max volume," someone who has never been to Burning Man or even heard of a sound camp will cock their head in confusion. For those that know what I'm talking about, they'd probably shiver at the brain-rattling, skin-melting potential of F1 sound systems turned up to max volume.

If I say, "That concert was sick man. He is the illest bass player and the lead singer was nasty on the mic." then someone outside the late 90's American cultural slang of `Sick is Good` will be thoroughly misled. They may reasonably believe that this was a poorly performed musical event because the literal meaning of those words is far from positive in any direction. Frankly, I get ill thinking about how ill came to mean something good.

In short, lacking clarity on the impact of our metaphor design given the cultural context of our audience can yield misunderstanding (at best) or unintended malice (at worst).

American metaphors tend to be violent, aggressive, and destructive

Listen to almost any conversation with born and raised Americans and you'll hear some version of

  • "She's killing it in her new job!"
  • "That movie was the bomb!"
  • "We destroyed the other team!"
  • "He shredded the mountain slope!"
  • "Their new art show is crushing it!"

Somehow, each of these is associated with positive qualities and outcomes. Why is murder good? Or explosive implements of death a sign of quality?

If your experience is anything like my own, once you see these patterns it's impossible to unsee them.

I believe, and the Metaphors book philosophically reinforces, the words we use shape our cognition. If we (not so) subtly transmit that then it should come as no surprise when our society is numb and indifferent to the death of natural environments and other life forms.

Personally, I will a society for myself and my children that encourages compassion, connection, and inclusion over death, destruction, and violence. For me, that starts with the language I use. I've spent the last two years eradicating aggression (in blunt and subtle forms) from my vernacular and it's surprisingly difficult. I still catch myself slipping in a "Boom!" years later.

Value judgments aside, I accept with genuine curiosity and awe that every frequently recited metaphor serves a function in society. If I choose to exclude a widely accepted standard of understanding, how do I fill the void with tact and grace without compromising meaning?

Metaphors can be diligently designed and architected

One of the most illuminating points from the book is the universality of primary metaphors. Primary metaphors supersede cultural contexts because they point to base human experiences. In short, certain metaphors mean (mostly) the same thing to everyone regardless of where they come from, what languages they speak, or their experiential backgrounds.

For example, if I say "Her smile radiates with the gentle warmth of a cloudless summer sky" then it's much more likely to resonate with more people than if I say "Her smile is more beautiful than a Van Gogh painting." The reason is simple: almost everyone has felt the timeless joy of a soft sun on their skin, whereas not everyone knows of Van Gogh and, of those that do, not everyone finds his style of art beautiful. Perhaps more importantly, if I translate the first metaphor into any language, even though it may be idiomatically stilted, a native speaker would likely understand the core sentiment (and probably smile at the thought).

An even more basic function of the human experience is orientation. Every language and culture has concepts of front / back, up / down, left / right because they are fundamental to our survival (how else would we communicate the location of food and threats?). So when I say "My energy is low" then the abstraction of my mitochondrial (or emotional or intellectual or spiritual) gestalt being low elevation is intuitively understood as less vibrant than if I said "I'm high energy". The same set of words would likely mean something similar on every continent, in any language, regardless of whether I'm talking to a farmer, an investment banker, or a monarch.

Basic sensory realities tied to survival are rich soil to till for universally understood metaphors. Some examples include:

  • Sight (i.e. light / dark, clear / blurry, focus / peripheral, color)
  • Sound (i.e. loud / quiet, resonant / dissonant)
  • Touch (i.e. soft / hard, smooth / rough, light / heavy, hot / cold)
  • Smell (i.e. fresh, fishy)
  • Taste (i.e. sweet / bitter, spicy / bland)
  • Food (i.e. nourishing / empty, chewing, swallowing, digesting, poison)
  • Geospatial (i.e. up / down, left / right, front / back)
  • Movement (i.e. fast / slow, crawl / walk / run)
  • Natural world (i.e. weather like sunny / cloudy, life like alive / dead or plants and animals, inanimate like rocks)

One of my root desires is to optimize for thriving (read: connection, inclusion, and empowerment) in all aspects of my life. Practically, I now realize that metaphors grounded in basic human experiences can yield more universally resonant meaning with all walks of life.

These basic metaphors are foundational, but they can be reductive for the linguistic temple of thriving I seek to build. So now the final piece!

Coherent metaphor design stacks metaphors like building blocks

There is only so much ground we can cover with referencing up / down or light / dark.

To develop ever more nuanced versions of reality, or adapt to new technological or societal advances, we piece together existing metaphors into simple and complex structures.

For example, a primary metaphor is and is related to the experiential observation that when we have more of something (food, water, materials) the pile or volume of that thing raises in height. So when I say "The stock market is rising" to transmit that the total sum value of business shares is increasing, I am leaning on the generally internalized idea that "rising" is related to "increasing" by way of the metaphor.

Throughout the book, and especially in the 2003 afterword of the latest edition, the authors offer multiple examples of much more sophisticated constructions of piecing together primary and derivative metaphors.

Interestingly, they also offer examples of incoherent or incongruent metaphors. These "sound wrong" in large part because the underlying metaphors clash in some important ways. Back to Wall St., if I say "The stock market is going sideways" then there is a jigger jagger of meaning. That's because we typically consider that particular financial institution as a container that can fill or empty - go up or down. But containers don't go sideways (because we don't experience sideways as more or less) so I'm either referring to something other than stock values or I'm just speaking nonsense.

Rapid prototyping metaphors

One of the most potent implications is that a lack of understanding is grounded in incongruent metaphorical constructs.

For my writing and other general populace communications, that means taking particular care to precisely choose metaphors as close to universal human experiences as possible. Or, where that's not possible, interweave a variety of metaphor constructs so that there is an experiential context that is relevant and resonant to each reader or listener. Where I'm connecting with more niche audiences, I can lean into the metaphors native to their domain.

For any real time communication, especially with new connections, I am seeing the value of practicing metaphor deconstruction. The sooner I can tease out the primary and derivative metaphors my peer is baking into their conceptual and language frameworks, the faster I can reformulate my content so it is meaningful and resonant.

Alternatively, in conversation I can rapidly cycle through a variety of predefined metaphor structures (i.e. structures, engineering, nature, food, machinery) and watch for somatic changes (i.e. leaning in, eyes widening, physiological excitement, accelerated speech) that underscore resonance. Once I've found one or two domains, I can elaborate into those arenas.

Like any skill, processing and designing metaphors will feel clunky at first. But with practice and diligence, I am confident this skill will yield tremendous value in ever more subtle ways.

The magic of metaphor

All this reminds of one of my favorite quotes

Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic. - Arthur C. Clarke

Metaphors are a technology of meaning born of experience. Sufficiently advanced, it can yield magical qualities of understanding.

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