Trippingly on the Tongue

I’ve always liked the poetry of metaphor with its imagery revealing nuances hiding shyly in the background. Words alone sometimes convey their meanings too narrowly, whereas metaphors allow imagination to roam more freely, only loosely tethered to definitions. After all, depending on the context of its use, meaning is often reliant on Weltanschauung. Such is communication; language is only the messenger.

Usually one can imprison meaning, of course -confine it in a cramped little box from which, should it ever escape, it would cease to be useful. Indeed, it would be a Pandora’s box from which it escaped. And yet, even there, what remained inside after all the mischief and malevolence had escaped, was Hope. Maybe that’s what metaphors are: unexpected colours leaking from behind the bars… Liberations.

Of course, metaphor is value-laden as well as culture-dependent. One society’s metaphors do not always translate into that of another -hence the difficulty of truly understanding and appreciating the poetry of another nation, especially if it must be converted into a different language. It made me wonder whether there may be similar disparities with gendered interpretations of metaphor.

There was an interesting article in BBC Future a while ago that caught my eye: It made me realize that there are many ways the genders differ. Of course, it may be that when we hear an unusual expression for the first time, we (either sex) cling too firmly to denotative -definitional- aspects of the words for interpretational safety, when the more imaginative and unexpected connotative sense is what was intended all along. And it’s in the connotation -the metaphoric significance- where we differ…

For example, what is a ‘glass ceiling’? ‘Originally popularised by Gay Bryant at the height of the feminist movement in the 1980s, it’s a widely used term today that describes an invisible barrier that keeps women from occupying executive positions. The metaphor suggests that women should aspire to ‘break through’ the ceiling – but the problem is that it describes only the women reaching up, rather than, say, the men that are peering down from the top. This arguably places unfair responsibility on women to smash the ceiling, rather than focusing on the role of men in creating and maintaining it.’

There are other metaphors in use of course, often involving glass -presumably to convey the idea of invisible barriers to movement for women. So, the ‘glass cliff’ which depicts the idea of  ‘how senior women are often hired for risky and precarious roles at times of crises’ and therefore making them look bad if they fail to succeed. Or, the non-glass example of the ‘sticky floor’, which describes how women often feel stuck in low-wage jobs where career ascension is unlikely.’ 

But, handy as they are in explaining often complex topics, metaphors -in these contexts anyway- tend to oversimplify the problems ‘offering only a specific angle or viewpoint that isn’t the full picture.’ They confine us to viewing the world through a narrow aperture -a spotlight that illuminates only one small part of the stage. ‘“Women are the effect to be explained,” says Michelle Ryan, a psychology professor at the University of Exeter. “We never talk about men being overconfident, we always talk about women being underconfident. And we never talk about men having privilege or finding it easy; we always talk about women finding it difficult.” Ryan believes that the metaphors we’re using to describe women at work reflect the world’s androcentricism [sic] – our insistence that, even in 2017, we consider the male experience as “the norm”’

The issue is not entirely one-gendered, though. There is the concept of the ‘glass escalator’, a term occasionally applied to men in female-dominated industries that ascend to upper ranks more quickly than women. And yet, as Caren Goldberg of Bowie State University in Maryland points out, metaphors are employed when there is an “exception” to the rule or gender stereotype.’ So in the example she cites, it was applied to a male nurse (in a predominantly female dominated profession at the time) and implied that he probably chose nursing because he wasn’t able to get in to medical school.

‘The obvious upside of any these metaphors, however, is that they highlight social phenomena that might otherwise remain invisible and therefore impossible to resolve. But in order to address the circumstances that lead to women being held back, and men rising seamlessly, it shouldn’t be forgotten that metaphors simplify complexity.’

In an admittedly convoluted way, it reminds me of a woman I met the other day at a bus stop. I suppose I only met her by default, really -nobody would stand beside her because she was exhibiting a rather odd behaviour -probably Tourette’s syndrome, I’d thought at the time. She would be standing quietly at the curb, and then suddenly bend forward and seem to be vigorously cleaning and polishing something above her. This would last for a few seconds, often becoming more and more frantic, and then subside, leaving her once again peaceful, although by the look on her face, perhaps not content.

She was in her thirties, I would guess, and dressed quite respectably in a blue pant-suit, with a spotless white blouse and short stubby earrings that would be unlikely to achieve any unwanted momentum during her seemingly randomly timed tics. Her auburn hair was sensibly short and her makeup intact as far as I could tell. Apart from her odd movements, she seemed like a typical business woman on her way home from work.

And, when she moved beside me in the now-disrupted line up, she smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said -hurriedly, I thought, in order to explain herself before she was once again overcome by the movement. “It’s just my latest tic…”

At that point and without any obvious warning, she launched into another bout of scrubbing something invisible over her head. I tried to pretend I didn’t notice, but she wasn’t fooled.

“I think stuff at work must have kicked this one off,” she said and then blushed.

“What do you mean?” I asked, genuinely interested.

She stared at me for a moment, perhaps wondering if it was something appropriate to confess to a stranger at a bus stop. Then her smile returned briefly before the tic arrived again.

“They’re all used to me at work,” she explained when she was able to. “But the boss isn’t.” She risked a sigh to indicate her frustration. “I mostly just repeat words to myself so they’re not as disruptive. But occasionally a movement takes over, and that’s what he doesn’t understand… Or like. I think he wonders if I’m actually mentally handicapped, or something.

“Anyway, even though I’ve been working there as an accountant for almost ten years, he’s never promoted me. I’m well regarded by my colleagues, and they’re almost all men…but…”

I could see a sudden change in her face as she leaned over the curb and the tic began again.

“But my friend Amrita thinks it’s just the glass ceiling that’s holding me back,” she said, once again in temporary control. “And yet, I’m not certain that reassures me…”

Her bus pulled up suddenly, and she stepped onto it like any other passenger, and was gone. I saw her smile at me through the window when she found a seat though, and I nodded in a friendly recognition of what she’d shared with me. But, like her, I’m not sure her friend was right -ceilings are not the only battles.


Sometimes the Twain Should Meet

That we are, each of us, different is a given; that societies and the cultures they produce are different, is also self-evident. But that any one individual picked at random should be representative of that difference is another matter. We humans tend to be bicameral when and if it suits us. For example: my Asian friend is clever and devious, so most Asians are probably clever and devious (inductive reasoning); but at other times: everybody knows the French are rude, so perhaps I should not hire that French person (deductive reasoning).

How much credence can we put in either type of reasoning when it comes to judging world views of different cultures? There was an interesting article in BBC News about this a while ago:  And as you can imagine, the issue is complex: ‘From the broad differences between East and West, to subtle variation between U.S. states, it is becoming increasingly clear that history, geography and culture can change how we all think, in subtle and surprising ways – right down to our visual perception. Our thinking may even have been shaped by the kinds of crops our ancestors used to farm, and a single river may mark the boundaries between two different cognitive styles.’

‘[…] our “social orientation” appears to spill over into more fundamental aspects of reasoning. People in more collectivist societies tend to be more ‘holistic’ in the way they think about problems, focusing more on the relationships and the context of the situation at hand, while people in individualistic societies tend to focus on separate elements, and to consider situations as fixed and unchanging.’

For example: ‘An eye-tracking study by Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan found that participants from East Asia tend to spend more time looking around the background of an image – working out the context – whereas people in America tended to spend more time concentrating on the main focus of the picture.’ So, ‘[…] this narrow or diverse focus directly determines what we remember of a scene at a later date.’ But because things like these seem to be so widely dispersed in a population, is it a genetic difference, or merely a learned, culturally favoured response? ‘Alex Mesoudi at the University of Exeter recently profiled the thinking styles of British Bangladeshi families in East London. He found that within one generation, the children of immigrants had started to adopt some elements of the more individualistic outlook, and less holistic cognitive styles. Media use, in particular, tended to be the biggest predictor of the shift. “It tended to be more important than schooling in explaining that shift.”’

The article goes on to suggest several theories as to why the so-called East-West differences arose in the first place -everything from epidemics, to types of crops grown by different populations, but the problem still remains: the differences lie on a spectrum –‘broad trends across vast numbers of people’. And yet even so, especially in small interpersonal discussions –dare I say ‘arguments’?- we are very likely to use whatever generalization makes our point.

But, for many of us, that tends to preclude any semblance of critical analysis. It’s far easier to succumb to the prevailing opinion without questioning the reasons for its presence, let alone its validity. And it’s not just the so-called East/West divide –the potential seems to arise whenever any culture examines another. Perhaps an example that stands out clearly in contemporary life, is that of the hijab –the headscarf. Sometimes the objections are couched in religiosecular terms of course, but they often boil down to simple perspective –Weltanschauung.

Aaisha, a Muslim friend of mine recently decided to wear the hijab, and although there were no prohibitive policies or objections from her bosses at work, she encountered resistance from a source she had not anticipated –her co-workers.

Some of it was just petty –“Why would you want to cover your hair?” one woman said to her, adding “It’s so beautiful” no doubt to take the sting out of her rudeness. But the woman had never complimented her hair before, so it rang hollow to Aaisha.

And then she told me about another, a man who had just joined the company a few months before and who seemed quite uncomfortable with hijab and glared at her whenever he passed her desk. Finally, she decided to talk to him about it.

“You keep staring at me, Jeffrey,” she said, smiling confidently as she walked up to his desk. “I get the impression you’re unhappy about something.”

He acted surprised at first, and then his scowl returned and he pointed at her head. “You didn’t used to wear that scarf, Aaisha,” he said, trying to keep his tone friendly.

Her smile broadened and she pointed to his tie. “I don’t remember you wearing that tie before, either, Jeffrey.”

He blinked uncomprehendingly. “It’s just a tie. I wear different ties all the time…”

She didn’t skip a beat. “It’s just a hijab,” she said, obviously proud of the word and pointing to her head.. “And you may have noticed, I also wear different ones all the time…”

His eyes narrowed and his forehead wrinkled. “A tie is different, Aaisha…”

She waited for him to continue, but he seemed to think his answer was complete –and for him, it probably was. Finally, she decided to ask the obvious question. “Oh…?  And how is it different?”

He actually rolled his eyes at the stupidity of the question. “It’s what men are expected to wear to work.”

The smile never left her face and she pointed to another man at the next desk. “John never wears a tie…”

Jeffrey shrugged. “We’re different, that’s all… And anyway, I’m my own person.”

Aaisha stood there, for a moment, and then blinked. “And so am I, I guess…”

Jeffrey seemed surprised at her answer, then shook his head. “Nobody makes me wear the tie…”

At this point, Aaisha laughed. “And nobody makes me wear a hijab, Jeffrey.”

He didn’t seem to know how to react. “But… Well, how about your husband?”

She shook her head, still smiling. “I’m not married… And my father and brothers are still back in England -just in case you want to involve them,” she added with a laugh.

Jeffrey began to sense he was losing the argument. “It’s a family tradition -and also a society thing- Aaisha. My father always wore a tie to work –and his father before him…” But his voice was less confident.

Aisha sighed. “Should I tell you about my mother, and her sisters? They all wore the hijab back in London –and not because they were forced to, they’d be quick to tell you. They just felt more a part of the community wearing hijab, so it, too, was a society-thing as you called it…”

He blinked, but slowly. “Your society, Aaisha, not ours!”

The smile returned, and she nodded her head towards John again. “And what about John? Does he belong to another society, as well? We’re all immigrants, Jeff; we’re all other if you go back a generation or two. And thank god we don’t all have to dress the same,” she said, touching the sleeve of his fraying shirt with her hand and winking coyly at him.

And for the first time, he smiled at her.


We are a culture of categorists. Slotists. Namists. It is a society of Nomino, ergo sum. It’s as if we can sleep more securely knowing we have named and categorized everything we have seen that day –no matter how bizarre, no matter how unimportant. No matter, even, how mistaken the belief that by so doing, we have added something of substance to the world at large. I suppose what concerns me, though, is when to stop the naming? How finely do we divide the gradations before asking if we are really labelling something different?

And, does the act of naming something reify it –make it a real thing, in other words? Or does it merely select it from an otherwise amorphous background where it existed all along? Or, to identify yet another permutation, is it more like taking a shape, say, from a Rorschach ink blot and privileging one interpretation as gospel?

We are all different in many ways –some, interestingly so, others not as noticeably until pointed out by otherwise underemployed taxonomists. I accept this, but still question whether each variation from a norm is deserving of a separate name. Might we put ourselves in greater danger of muddying the water the more we stir it? Losing what we could previously identify in its depths? And for what? Are there really ‘more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy? as Hamlet might have asked – More things requiring unique and quirky names?

So, what provoked this mini Jeremiad? Well, I suppose I am as much to blame as the taxonomists in my relentless search for novelty. As I poked and prodded my way through –what else?- the BBC News app, I came across an article on Aphantasia. At first, I wondered if it was a reminiscence about that Disney film which was set to classical music. I was about to scroll past it, but the ‘Ph’ spelling aroused my etymological curiosity.

It turns out that Aphantasia is a neologism that borrows from both Greek and Latin roots: a –meaning ‘without’, and phantasia –meaning ‘image’, or even ‘a making visible’. It refers to the inability to produce a voluntary mental image of something when it is not actually present. So remembering a mental picture of a face might be a problem for someone with aphantasia, although they would still be able to remember non-visible facts about the face –things that stood out, perhaps, like a large nose or a patch over an eye… Attributes, not images.

It may well be a spectrum of loss, however, as Professor Zeman, at the University of Exeter, points out in his study: ‘..the majority of participants described involuntary imagery. This could occur during wakefulness, usually in the form of ‘flashes’ (10/21) and/or during dreams.’  I find this interesting; their capacity to form the internal visual memories is not lost apparently –more the ability to retrieve them at will.

But the very acknowledgement –and naming– of this edge of the normative Bell curve set the neuroscientists scurrying to find its other perimeter and they found it: hyperphantasia –perhaps more easily described as hyper-imagination. I have less faith in this category as a distinct entity, though –I would suspect it wanders terribly close to the edge of more classically defined psychopathology, as in the outer border of bipolar disease, for example, or the imaginative excesses often found in schizophrenia.

So, what has this study purported to identify? Boundaries. After all, up to a certain point, we classify difference as merely a variation from the mean –a quirk of behaviour. A nuance, not an epiphany. And yet boundaries are slippery and once determined, are heavily scented with unintended consequences. As the BBC article pointed out, ‘One person who took part in a study into aphantasia said he had started to feel “isolated” and “alone” after discovering that other people could see images in their heads.’ After all, a boundary had obviously not existed until it had been defined, and then, sadly, the person found that he was on the wrong side of it. What is normal and unremarkable to one, is alien, or at least unexpected for another.

But all of us are on one side or another of some line, aren’t we? Our very uniqueness requires it. It is something to celebrate, something to admire. And yet, not to appear unduly Cassandroid, there are dangers in names –in difference– unless Society learns to honour the mosaic. Cherish it for the montage it weaves into our cultural fabric. Accept the ever changing clothes despite any unwanted flesh it may expose.

I may sound like I’m against the free and unexpurgated pursuit of scientific curiosity -I’m not. Against the inductive method of interrogating nature -again, I’m not. Nor am I content to drift with the tide, happy to land wherever wind and water direct. But curiosity is a watchful cat that lurks in our shadows with hungry eyes and eager claws. It needs to be fed and nurtured constantly, but sometimes carefully. Respectfully.