Unlike shiny red high-heeled pumps, metaphors don't often get our attention. How come? We take metaphors for granted. And yet metaphors are a literary device at the very heart of our communication.
David Brooks, in his April 11, 2011 NYTimes OpEd piece, Poetry for Everyday Life, takes issue with:
"...a clunky but unremarkable sentence that appeared in the British press before the last national election: “Britain’s recovery from the worst recession in decades is gaining traction, but confused economic data and the high risk of hung Parliament could yet snuff out its momentum.”"
What makes this otherwise unremarkable sentence quite remarkable is something that probably flew over your head like it did mine:
"The sentence is only worth quoting because in 28 words it contains four metaphors. Economies don’t really gain traction, like a tractor. Momentum doesn’t literally get snuffed out, like a cigarette. We just use those metaphors, without even thinking about it, as a way to capture what is going on."
Brooks refers to a wonderful new book by James Geary, "I Is an Other," in which Geary reports on "linguistic research suggesting that people use a metaphor every 10 to 25 words. Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think, Geary writes. They are at the very heart of it."
TIP: So now that you know you do it, how do you do it more effectively and efficiently in your speaking and writing? Begin by paying attention to the metaphors you say and hear. For example, Brooks lists a few examples in his piece, as follows:
"We devour a book, try to digest raw facts and attempt to regurgitate other people’s ideas, even though they might be half-baked.
When talking about relationships, we often use health metaphors. A friend might be involved in a sick relationship. Another might have a healthy marriage.When talking about argument, we use war metaphors. When talking about time, we often use money metaphors. But when talking about money, we rely on liquid metaphors. We dip into savings, sponge off friends or skim funds off the top."
TIP: At the risk of relying too heartily on Brooks lovely language, I second his advice to take the time to pause and listen. Imagine that! Pause. And. Listen. If only once a month, per Brooks:
"Most of us, when asked to stop and think about it, are by now aware of the pervasiveness of metaphorical thinking. But in the normal rush of events, we often see straight through metaphors, unaware of how they refract perceptions. So it’s probably important to pause once a month or so to pierce the illusion that we see the world directly. It’s good to pause to appreciate how flexible and tenuous our grip on reality actually is."
TIP: For years I have relied on the precursor to Geary's work, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson's classic, "Metaphors We Live By." Lakoff and Johnson explain how metaphors have become so central to understanding how we think and how we express our thoughts in language. Consider adding the updated edition to your library.
TIP: The savvy lawyer who is testing her case story in small group research such as focus groups or mock trials already knows that she is listening to the ways people in the community use metaphors to help someone else comprehend their often imprecise thoughts. It is for this reason I will go on record once again to encourage lawyers to allow an experienced professional to facilitate the small group research leaving the lawyer free to hear what is right and, most importantly, wrong with the trial story. Ironically, it is as if Brooks is actually speaking to lawyers here:
"Most important, being aware of metaphors reminds you of the central role that poetic skills play in our thought. If much of our thinking is shaped and driven by metaphor, then the skilled thinker will be able to recognize patterns, blend patterns, apprehend the relationships and pursue unexpected likenesses."
I love language - almost as much as a brand new pair of shiny red high-heeled pumps. No matter the shoe, they all get laced the same way - metaphorically speaking.