7 Strange Places to Meet a Metaphor

“It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!” is one of Shakespeare’s most famous lines and one of the most well known metaphors in literature. But metaphor is much more than a mere literary device employed by love-struck poets when they refer to their girlfriends as interstellar masses of incandescent gas. We all use metaphor all the time. They turn up in the strangest places and influence us in surprising and often oddball ways.

Financial commentary
Stock prices soar, climb, leap, and perform all kinds of other superheroic statistical feats—all metaphors implying that stock prices are living things pursuing goals. Exposure to these metaphors leads people to expect the trends they describe to continue. If house prices are relentlessly described as climbing higher and higher, homeowners unconsciously assume the steady rise is unstoppable…

Your physical environment
People holding a hot cup of coffee are more likely to describe someone as ‘warm’ than people holding a cold cup of coffee. People sitting on a hard chair are more likely to be ‘tough’ negotiators than people sitting on a soft chair. People who seal their written recollections of a traumatic event in an envelope achieve greater emotional closure than those who do not seal their memories in an envelope. Metaphors transfer physical experience to psychological experience.

Product design
We evolved to rapidly recognize and respond positively to anything with large, wide eyes and a small nose and mouth—anything that looks like a baby. This instinctive positive emotional response can be transferred via visual metaphor to anything that looks like a face, even a car grill. People rate cars as cuter and more desirable if their front grills have been manipulated to look baby-like.

Military names
An analysis of the names given to Israeli military operations between 1948 and 2007 found that more than 60% of them alluded to either the natural world or the Bible, metaphorical names intended to suggest that the campaigns were either forces of nature or sanctioned by a higher power. Operation Enduring Freedom anyone?

One ad has stuck in my mind since I first saw it in the 1970s: Prudential’s “Get a piece of the rock.” The image of Gibraltar is a powerful metaphor of safety, control, and security. An insurance company is not just an insurance company, but a rock of stability in turbulent times.

Physical experience
Anger is metaphorically described as heat in every culture. “She’s about to blow her top,” “He’s all steamed up,” “She’s a hot head,” and “In the heat of the moment” are all variations on the ‘anger is heat’ metaphor. In fact, the experience of physical heat is processed in the same brain region as emotional heat. Many metaphors piggyback on the language of physical experience.

Historical metaphors
In his State of the Union address, President Obama described the challenge of creating new industries and new jobs as “our generation’s Sputnik moment,” referring to 1957 when the Soviet Union put the first satellite into space. Historical metaphors create associations that influence our decisions, often without our conscious knowledge. So it’s important to carefully choose your metaphors, and to be vigilant about those used by others. There’s a big difference between making a giant leap for mankind and re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

For more on metaphor, check out I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World.