If you asked me how my first contact lens fitting went, I would say it was awful. While this answer provides you with a general “bad vibe” about the experience, if I answered instead with, “it was like a four-year-old attempting to open the inside capsule of a Kinder Surprise,” you would understand much more. You would gather that, at first, for me, the idea of contacts were so sweet, but then a realization of difficulty creeps in, followed by frustration, proceeded by streaming tears, and eventually, a seething hatred for the confounded ill-designed plastic parabolas. While, of course, not a perfect analogy, that simile hopefully gave you better insight into my plight.
Similes and metaphors are wonderful tools that we all use daily to help elaborate and decorate our stories and tales. They even provide a sense of camaraderie between people as they are both “in” on the implications of whatever metaphor was said. I find that things get interesting, however, when you look at the metaphors that are built into our language.
What has recently come to my attention are the types of metaphors we use on a daily basis. More specifically, the ones we use to describe confrontation; I shot down his argument, I obliterated the professor’s thesis, I soon put all misuses of the word, ‘literally’ to the sword. Can you tell what the topic is?
Conflict, in English, as in many other languages, is viewed as a war. I say this, you say that, and *ding ding* into the ring we go. We stand from our chairs in the corner, egged on by our egos, and battle it out until one is victorious and has pummeled the other’s idea into the ground; an almost survival-of-the-fittest idea, if you will. Any time there is a conflict, even over the pettiest and most trivial of events, people flare up and adopt a battle stance.
The unfortunate implications of having the war metaphor for conflict are that there is always a winner and a loser. Someone’s idea is better, and whichever one wins is clearly the superior. There are many issues with this, which I’m sure you can figure out, but one that I’d like to really pursue is that fact that the idea that wins, has not changed since the beginning.
Imagine that instead of perceiving conflict as a battle, we begin to imagine it as a dance (credit must be given here to Lakoff and Johnson who came up with the concept in the book “Metaphors we live by.” I am building on the idea and adding my own spin to it). Think of if two people brought their knowledge to the floor and sought not to destroy the other, but to make something beautiful. This then takes the focus away from winning, and shifts it to creating.
Let’s examine the implications of this idea. I am not saying that this would reduce or abolish conflict. A lot of conflicts are constructive and their outcomes healthy. I am saying that the attitude and general feeling towards conflict would change. Perhaps some people would be more comfortable waltzing across a marble floor in civilized attire than first choosing between a .38 caliber, a .50 caliber, or an RPG, aiming the chosen over a trench wall, shooting, and then promptly ducking down to pray they haven’t hurt anyone.
As Canadians, we have this idea that we must be polite and we are, at times, very accommodating and compliant when we really shouldn’t be. However, we’ve got this idea that we must avoid and shy away from altercations. The connotations conflicts have based on the metaphors we use to articulate them can be a little frightening. People are reluctant to engage in conflict because they feel as if they as starting a war. Because of this, we miss out on many opportunities to improve situations, relationships, and ideas.
Of course, all of your decision-making to avoid conflicts is done on the same level as where metaphors are usually formed: the unconscious. We sometimes don’t realize the physical effects that metaphors and connotations can have. They can move us from situations, change our reaction to things, and even dictate our emotions. The same situation can evoke drastically different reactions from different people based on the way they individually perceive it. A lot of the time, this perception is done unconsciously. Such is the way we react to metaphors.
A study was done where people were asked their views on what the police should do to tackle increasing crime rates. Two different sheets were handed out. One sheet portrayed crime as a predator attacking the community, while the other implied that crime was more like a virus infecting the community. Their responses largely reflected these metaphors. Those exposed to the predator metaphor, chose to “catch” and “lock it up” through increasing the police force and extending prison terms. Those exposed to the virus metaphor chose to “cure” it through creating stronger communities and treating crime at the root cause. These responses were influenced largely by the implied metaphors to which the subjects were exposed.
I find in conflict that people sometimes stray from the original subject and the conflict becomes solely about victory at all costs; as the saying goes, “All’s fair in love and war.” To me, a dance approach seems like it would diminish people’s need to win, and the attitude changes. People might become more willing to accept new ideas, try out concepts, or view different points if it meant adding some flair to their number.
‘We’ve waltzed about the issues for a while now but we’re nearing the end’ could be a metaphor depicting an ongoing conflict that (the reason I pick waltz here is because while it’s not necessarily a slow-tempoed dance, it does embody slow, broad movements from the dancers).
‘We had a bit of a tango last night,’ could imply you had a quick heated argument over something and resolved it within a small time frame (I choose tango here because of its flare and passion).
Perhaps even ‘Foxtrot’ could be used. It is similar to a waltz, but as well as being elegant and sophisticated it is also supported by a big band. This could imply a conflict between companies, or two people in the public eye.
Instead of choosing your battles, you’ll be choosing your partners and instead of blowing their argument out of the water, you’ll be sweeping them off their feet, signifying that you are the stronger of the two, but with their help you made a beautiful thing that could not have been done solo.
Lakoff, G., Johnson, M., 1980. Metaphors we live by, The University of Chicago Press. USA: Chicago.