Verbal identities

Better a good metaphor than a long speech

If you want to define the DNA of a company, you identify its values and culture, uncover its history, qualify its purpose, its vision and its missions. The term has become so much a part of corporate language that we barely notice it. “DNA” is deoxyribonucleic acid. In other words, it’s a metaphor: you talk about one thing in terms that apply to another, you refer to the abstract with the help of the concrete. Under the influence of the metaphor, the organisation becomes organic, but it’s a biased organics: a genetic metaphor conveys a deterministic and monochrome conception of identity, as compared to a pluralistic and dynamic interpretation of this same identity. The language presupposes rigidity and determinism. Other images tend to make an institution mechanical (with the use of terms like “nuts and bolts”) or political (“manifesto”), sometimes even religious (“credo”).

But a metaphor is more than a question of language. It also addresses the very structure of our thought. This is shown by the most recent advances in cognitive linguistics, which is the science that studies language using the tools of cognitive sciences (including brain imagery). The experts can see that when discourse contains metaphors, the various zones of the brain are activated more rapidly and more durably: a metaphor makes an impression while language full of generic and abstract thoughts brushes our neurons and then promptly fades away. The conclusion is that metaphors are at the heart of our mental processes, they are even fundamental to all our concepts. We rationalise after the event, but in the first place we perceive and experience the world by way of images: we are “embodied mind,” mind and body inseparable. This is the very object of Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (1999), the monumental work by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. A linguist and a philosopher, pioneers in this area, they first advanced the hypothesis that our everyday lives are structured by metaphors in Metaphors We Live By (1980), and studied how different cultures using their own metaphors portray the same phenomena in ways that can sometimes be divergent.

So metaphors are not only a tool for understanding; they are also a means of (physically) experiencing what we hear or say. They enable us to develop “sensitive” concepts and create conceptual synaesthesia which engages all our senses, our whole being, and influences us in our decision-taking – this point is developed in James Geary’s TEDx lecture, entitled “Metaphorically Speaking.” Metaphor confers sensoriality on language. It’s one thing to talk about “innovation, full stop.” But talking of innovation as a “journey” (exploring, covering ground, new paths), as “light” (trailblazing, bringing to light, unveiling), as “mining” (digging, drilling down, nugget), provides a certain experience of innovation. It means conducting your R&D policy in one way, not in another.

For no metaphor is neutral. The right choice of metaphors is fundamental: it implies identity and is not only verbal. For instance, when we use the whole panoply of military language to describe company life – through such symptomatic expressions as “laying siege to the boss’s office,” “battling for a job,” “conducting a campaign” – our professional life is made more hostile than if we were to structure our experience using metaphors drawn from travelling, playing, learning. But in certain contexts, some people need to portray themselves as “warriors”: in such a case the metaphor makes sense. Sort of… Because you then have to work out what kind of warrior you want to resemble: mercenary or knight, warmonger or strategist, foot soldier or pirate. And you can be a pirate in many different ways: buccaneer or privateer, bandit or filibuster, Blackbeard or Jean Bart, François l’Olonnais or Surcouf. The resulting universes of meaning and experience are not the same.

Some metaphors are also more fertile than others. In The Rule of Metaphor, the philosopher Paul Ricœur (1913-2005) shows how many metaphors have died, like ancient stars, fixed and frozen in the lexicon, no longer giving off any meaning. Others, meanwhile, are hot, trenchant and incisive, circulating live and lively units of meaning between comparing and compared. The first category are hollow images, clichés (“open up new avenues of thinking,” “shake up conventional thinking”), while the second, still new, make it possible to create striking images since there is a collision between two elements that we are not used to seeing connected with each other. L’Oréal has “poètes-paysans” (poet-peasants); Hermès has “épiciers-poètes” (grocer-poets); Danone has “jeu de jambes” (quick footwork). Some companies are brilliant at handling the art of the metaphor.

Whether you are “the captain of the ship,” “a right-hand man,” “on the top (or bottom) rung of the ladder” or “at the dawn (or sunset) of your career,” take care over your choice of metaphors. Much more literally that you would think, it is they that control us.

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