Culture and Metaphor

This post continues our exploration into metaphor.  In my last post, I described the term metaphor as figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable or as a reference that refers to a thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract. I explained that these metaphors were very specific to our own culture and life experience.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /".

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici

Different cultures have different metaphors – often they are idiomatic – meaning that the words used have no literal meaning, and only gain their meaning when shared in a setting that is used to hearing them. For example, in American English when we say something that we later regret because it is embarrassing to us or to someone else, we might say “I put my foot in my mouth.”  While in France one familiar with the language and culture might say “Se mettre le doigt dans l’œil” or literally “to put your finger in your eye.” In the American west (at least in western Colorado, where I grew up) when one wants to share something but expects it not to go any farther than the person with whom you are sharing the information, one might say “Just between you, me, and the fencepost.” Whereas a German intending the same thing, might say to another German  “Halten sie diese unter vier augen,” literally meaning “Keep this under four eyes.” 

It is widely recognized that language is closely linked to each culture that uses that language, and even terms used within sub-cultures in those societies help tie together those in that community. So, one will see very different metaphor in use depending on the particular major culture and even subculture.  Even if using predominantly English as the language, members of particular ethnic communities will use different phrases and idioms and see this as a sign of cohesion and shared experience. Even among professions and social groups, one will see that professional dancers use very different metaphor for short hand than boxers, or sailors, or martial artists. Unless, one is completely and deeply fluent in another culture and its idioms and metaphors, it is easy project the wrong impression by trying to use metaphors that you, as the speaker, don’t completely “own” as a part of your own life experience.

While the idiomatic terms and metaphors used may be quite different from culture to culture, one can see that families of metaphor do transcend culture. Virtually all cultures have metaphor stemming from our similar human experience and major life activities, such as cooking, traveling, playing sports, fighting or making war, and others However, the challenge is adapting those across linguistic and cultural gaps. So using this level of conscious metaphor is typically most useful in exchanges involving enough overlap between the speaker and the listener.

So, the fundamental point of the last two posts is that it can be very useful to be thoughtful in your use and selection of metaphor when having an important conversation. In working with Tip Number Seven: Seeking Congruence, our goal is to minimize the internal translation required of the listener by carefully selecting relatable metaphors that easily draw the listener into your point and allow them to relate to what you are trying to say. If I am working on a ship, I would not say take this to the right side of the ship, and likewise, if I am teaching a group of martial artist a new technique to say move to starboard, would make no sense at all!

While today’s focus has been on the close relationship between culture and metaphor, there is a whole world of subconscious word choice that is, indeed, NOT culturally dependent.  We will begin our focus on this aspect of word selection in our upcoming post!


©Bruce J. MacAllister, 2013, all rights reserved.

About Bruce MacAllister

Bruce MacAllister is the founder and Executive Director of Business Excellence Solutions. He holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Chemistry and Biology and a Juris Doctorate degree. He has over thirty years of experience working with people in conflict, and training and coaching people through conflict situations. He works nationally and internationally with a wide variety of clients, including national departments, research and development organizations, institutions of higher education, non-profits, and individual businesspeople. He has been an ombudsman, executive level manager, project and program manager, trainer, and attorney. Click the "About Us" page to see his full biography. (
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