Those Meddlesome Metaphors – by Terry Howard

“Biggest bang for the buck!”…..”Firing on all cylinders”….”Let’s bury the hatchet”. “Let’s raise the bar”.

“Think out of the box.” “They need to ramp up soon.” “Level the playing field!”

Ever notice how metaphors – figures of speech in which one concept is used in a place of another to suggest an analogy – have etched themselves into everyday conversations?

Ever wonder how an overuse of metaphors may lead to unintentional exclusion, particularly for those from other cultures who may not have the foggiest idea of what we’re talking about? Hey, I admit to using them myself on occasion.

There’s no argument that effective communication is essential in any environment. And add to that the fact that people don’t – most of them anyway – wake up in the morning wondering “who can I go out to exclude by the way I communicate today?” No doubt that there are some knuckleheads who use metaphors to obfuscate, intimidate and confuse. Whatever our motivation, we sometimes end up excluding others as we use the modes of communication, metaphors included, in the organization.

Common Workplace Metaphors

Here’s a list of common workplace metaphors and some tongue-in-cheek thoughts that could be racing through the minds of the listener (those are mine in parenthesis).


“She stabbed me in the back.” (Wow, and you’re not in a hospital?)
“Let’s string them up.” (As a Black person, this sounds like lynching!”)
“Kill with kindness.” (Euthanasia?)
“Give her enough rope to hang herself.” (see #2 above)
“Let your hair down.” (But I’m bald, if you didn’t notice)
“I run a tight ship.” (Yes, the Titanic!”)
“Let’s take the bull by the horn!” (Go ahead, I’ll watch from the sideline.)
“Light a fire under them.” (Did you clear that first with the folks in Safety?)
“It’s all Greek to me.” (Or Spanish, or English, or French, or Russian?)
“Walk the plank!” (See #7 above)
“Don’t worry, his bark is worse than his bite!’ (Okay, so why don’t you go first then?)
“We’re snowed under.” (Not if you work in Texas.)
“You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!” (Not sure if my spouse would appreciate that.)
“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks!” (Guess I’m not young enough to know it all, huh?)
“We’re up to our behinds in alligators.” (Just hope that they don’t like dark meat like mine.)

Many metaphors are sports related, traditionally U.S. male oriented. Examples: that’s a slam dunk; hit it out of the park; the ball is in your court; hit the ground running; playing hardball; kick off the meeting; skate to where the puck is; keep your eye on the ball. They may not be offensive, yet could be extremely hard to understand for non-English speakers. And some may interpret them as implicitly male oriented, whether intended that way or not.

Some metaphors can insult people’s intelligence: that’s a no brainer; she is clueless, and some are animal oriented and could offend anyone who does not want to be compared to an animal. Examples: she will bulldog it; they are like herding cats. And there are the language put downs – “Pardon my French.”

Some are violence oriented: they are a loose cannon; just shoot from the hip; he needs a slap on the wrist; take a stab at it; don’t throw the baby out with the bath water; cutting off the nose to spite the face.
Now the truth about metaphors is that we sometimes use them without much thought as to how they may confuse the listener. So how do we know? What are the danger signs?

Paying attention to immediate reactions, the nonverbal ones in particular, is a good place to start. Total silence, “looks of confusion,” eyes suddenly cast downward and frowning may be signs that what you said may have had unintended consequences.

And if you notice that some in a room will lean toward the person next to them, mouth cuffed, obviously whispering, there’s a chance that they’re asking that person to clarify what was just said.

Say that someone throws out a metaphor and you don’t have the faintest idea what it means. What do you do?

First, assume a positive intent on the part of the metaphor user. Just ask them politely to explain the comment. Chances are they will gladly do so since they too have a vested interest in being understood. Don’t forget to thank them.

And it is here where well-meaning third party, or ally, can be of enormous help if the person does not feel comfortable questioning the comment. He or she can always step in and in such a way that doesn’t assume exclusive intent on the part of the person who makes the comment. Taking the metaphor user off-line and giving them feedback is both doable and well worth the effort.

Now if you wish to respond publicly as an ally, here are some examples of effective retorts:

Metaphor & Ally’s Response:

“He blew a gasket during the meeting!”
“Yes, he did seem to be very upset!”

“C’mon, that’s water under the bridge.”
“You are right. That’s now in the past.”

Now the point is not to take fun and spontaneity out of the workplace. On the other hand, it is equally as important to foster an environment that fosters open and respectful communications, language that includes, language that is sensitive, language that’s respectful.

Long story short, (yikes, another metaphor, huh) a quick way to isolate others is to overwhelm them with those meddlesome metaphors!


Terry Howard

One thought on “Those Meddlesome Metaphors – by Terry Howard”

  1. I agree that some metaphors can be very hurtful, e.g., “rule of thumb” from measuring the radius of a stick a husband could legally use to beat his wife. On the other hand, different languages have their own that only a native speaker or one who has lived for a very long time in a particular country would understand. I don’t think it’s possible to be aware of them all and don’t necessarily believe it’s required to be. I consider myself sensitive to the feelings of others and am always pleased to explain something that may be confusing to others. I just don’t think the ball is always in my court to do so.

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