How we reveal ourselves through metaphor

Apparently, we use a metaphor every seven seconds. Unless, of course, you’re Dr Gregory House, the embittered anti-hero of the US tv series, whose speech consists almost entirely of metaphors. House is a one-man metaphor factory who spits out pithy phrases for every possible ailment and situation. Here are a few of my favourites:

  • “I’m a very high-strung little lapdog.”
  • “Infections are criminals; the immune system’s the police.”
  • “There is not a thin line between love and hate. There is in fact a Great Wall of China with armed sentries posted every 20 feet between love and hate.”

The dictionary definition of a metaphor is “a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable”. Clearly, House is not literally a little lapdog, infections are not criminals and there is no Great Wall of China between the emotions of love and hate.

The language of the unconscious

Sometimes we consciously use metaphors to make our language more vivid and striking. However, more often, they spring automatically from our lips.

“Metaphors are fascinating because people use them subliminally,” says Martin Lee, co-founder and strategist at Acacia Avenue, the qualitative research company. “People don’t consciously understand the extra layer of meaning that they add, but the metaphors they use are a choice. They reveal a great deal about what a person really thinks and feels.”

Acacia Avenue uses ‘discourse analysis’ to uncover the deeper meaning behind metaphors and analyse the implications for clients who want to connect with their customers in a more authentic way.

Chaos overhead: one man and his bank

Martin gives the example of a businessman interviewed about his relationship with his bank. A discourse analyst identified the metaphors in the transcript of the conversation, which included the businessman talking about ‘seeing chaos overhead’, ‘taking a chaotic road’ and not wanting to ‘let people down’.

“You don’t literally see chaos above your head, a road can’t be chaotic and you don’t actually let a person down,” says Martin. “All these metaphors reveal the underlying concerns of this customer. Also, it’s typical that so many of his metaphors are about position, direction and space; we understand the world in relation to ourselves.”

The customer wanted a “beautifully constructed” business relationship with his bank, some kind of order and solidity to counteract the chaos he perceived overhead. However, he said that his bank manager gradually became more “distant” and eventually he became disillusioned. “The story is more powerful in the metaphor than in the bald text,” comments Martin.

What’s your cultural anchor?

When people use metaphors, patterns emerge which reveal their ‘cultural anchors’ or ‘area of discourse’ – the way they see the world. House frequently uses the language of battle and control to describe his fight to diagnose unusual medical problems. His chosen metaphors underline his combative nature and approach to life. You’re left in no doubt that this is one little lapdog with a nasty bite.

The marketing profession is also known for its use of military language: it’s all about targeting, battles and campaigns. Meanwhile, other people or professions might choose metaphors that reflect the discourse of friendship, sex, science, medicine or education.

Listen to Gordon Ramsay, who surfs between the discourses of manual labour and sport in this interview for The Daily Telegraph, thereby reinforcing his hard-man reputation. “I’ve been at the coalface for 20 years now,” he says, adding: “I’m back in the ring now. The gloves are off.”

Equally, it is little surprise that Nigella Lawson borrows from the language of seduction when she describes a fruit cake as “the fruity blonde sister to the brunette temptress overleaf”, or that Jamie Oliver draws on rebellious rhetoric to inspire people to follow his ‘Food Revolution’.

“In my field,” says Martin, “I’ve noticed that sometimes when researchers are dealing with the messy stuff of human motivation and psychology, they might feel the need to prove themselves and use scientific discourse, such as ‘the spectrum of opinion’.”

Understanding our hidden emotional relationships with companies

So what are the implications for companies? “By analysing the metaphors that people use when they talk about organisations, we can see where the public position that brand emotionally,” says Martin.

At the recent Wordstock festival for fans of the written word, Martin ran a metaphor masterclass. “I asked people to talk for 30 seconds about two different companies – Tesco and Apple – and transcribe what they said word for word,” he says. “Strong patterns of metaphor emerged. When people talked about Tesco, the language of mythological monsters came out clearly, through words such as ‘behemoth’. Whereas they used the language of love to talk about Apple, such as ‘beautiful’.”

Acacia Avenue has used discourse analysis in various projects to help companies understand the hidden relationships that customers have with their brands. “With a well known package holiday company, quantitative research suggested that customers perceived the company as very efficient,” says Martin.  “But even when customers were talking favourably about them, there were clues as to how people really felt about them. Customers would say “They’re geared up”, “It’s a well-oiled machine”, or “It runs like clockwork.” Much of the metaphorical language was related to the discourse of engineering. People were using a stripped-down mechanical language to describe a good service, but they felt no warmth or emotional connection towards the brand. We recommended that they should keep the efficiency, but also engage with customers at a more human level.”

In another project, Acacia Avenue analysed the language that a cruise brand was using to sell its holidays. The conclusion was that modern-day travellers were alienated by cruises with names such as ‘Jewel of the Nile’ which evoked an archaic ‘golden age of travel’. Unconsciously, the language of the brochures betrayed a deep bias towards a rather stiff, old-fashioned attitude.

Speaking your brand’s language

“It’s all about choice,” says Martin. “A purist would say there’s no such thing as neutral language.” But in practice, some words are more neutral than others.  If you use the word ‘nose’ to describe the smelling organ in the middle of your face, you are not drawing attention to the choice of word, but if you choose an alternative word such as ‘conk’, ‘schnozzle’ or ‘proboscis’, they all have additional layers of meaning and convey subtle additional messages to the listener.

“People are very susceptible to the discourses they read,” Martin adds. “By being aware of the discourse you’re using, you can help influence people’s impressions of your brand in a positive way. Equally, by listening to the way that customers talk about your brand, you can understand the authenticity of your relationship with your customers.”

Appropriately enough, his final thought involves metaphors. “The voice of the brand has to be conscious, and the best brand writers have an intuitive feel for the discourse that their brand is swimming in. They can deliberately evoke a metaphor that suits the brand and literally speaks the brand’s language.”


Fiona Thompson, Wordspring