Tag Archives: metaphor

We are not a family!


When asked to describe a company, the CEO will almost invariably give us an ingratiating smile and say, “We’re a family.”

Employees are also tempted by the metaphor, and in happier moments, they will enthuse, “this really is my family.”

The truth is painfully otherwise.  The organization will use the employee as long as it suits and then jettison this employee without a flicker of remorse.   And often not even so much as an explanation.  One day you’re there.  The next day you’re gone.

Try that with your family.   “Dad, I’m sorry but you’re fired.  Mom, you have to go too.  We’re cutting back.  What, no, of course we’re sorry.  You’ve done a great job.  But things change.  We want you out of here by end of day.  And we’re going to need your ID  back.  Hand it over.”

“Firing” and “family” never intersect in our culture.  Ever.

I’m not complaining about the fact that people get fired.  Organizations are good at getting things done precisely because we try to stock them with all but only the people they need.

I am complaining about this ugly “family” fiction.  And it’s not just a problem of the group-think, conscious-bending, reality-concealing metaphor. (Though this should be objectionable on its own.)

I’m complaining about the use of the family metaphor to extract  value from employees.  Of course, you’ll give up your weekend, your vacation, your evenings and your personal lives.  We’re a family!  This is what families do for one another.  When used for these manipulative, value boosting purposes, the metaphor is no longer merely malicious, it’s now a deliberate, exploitative, lie.

So Mr. Smarty Pants Anthropologist, what’s the alternative?    I think it’s to define the corporation the way we do a graduate or professional school.

The first assumption  is that you the employee are passing through.  You will learn from what you do here, and move on.  You will work heroically hard but that’s because you are working to improve and get better.  As you do at a graduate or professional school.

We will treat you decently because, well, you are passing through.  And you will go out into the world, and speak ill or well of us.  You will help recruit the next class.  Or you won’t.  In fact, in a perfect world, you will pass through several jobs and return us.

The important thing is that superordinates are encouraged to understand the real relationship they have with a subordinate.  This person is not a member of a family.  This is not an enduring relationship.  We’re not “all in this together.”  Someday this relationship will end.   And we hope you will be better for it, not used up by it.  That’s in a sense is what we are here for.

This doesn’t create a symmetrical relationship, nor should it, but it could help discourage the practice of giving employees big, friendly hugs…while rummaging through their personal effects.


This is a library at the University of Chicago, blanket like, but covered in snow.  Now that’s a metaphor.

post script

Thomas Stewart has a wonderful essay on the “team” metaphor in Fortune here.

Jump Ship Rat and other great moments in metaphor

I’m reading a book called Cultural Hijack: Rethinking Intervention and on page 282 I found this poem in which a group of artists compare their organization to the rat. 

I reproduce it here without permission. Because it is so very, very brilliant, and your introduction to Jump Ship Rat, their work, and the book in question.

Jump Ship Rat
ability to move in any direction
with speed and agility
and fit through the narrowest of entrance/exit points
or to make them appear
ability to recognize when the ship you’re on is in trouble
to survive
to be held in wildly different regard
to be vilified
to be used to understand the human condition
to be able to startle human senses
to be open to misinterpretation
to be clearly recognized and understood
to have power and strength in numbers
to make a distinctive noise
to be heard
to be part of the night
daytime appearances to be committed to memory
public consciousness to be affected
to become immune to poison
to survive many efforts to be eradicated
to be mythologized
and exaggerated
made folklore
warning to society
pied piper is Santa Claus
occupation of disused spaces
unswerving pursuit of life
celebrating what others disregard
living in slums and palaces
the underground home
great fucking tunes
social shifts
cultural exchange
time changes
mean time
jump ship rat

For more on this group, see their website here.  

To order the book (and you should), see the Amazon page for same here.

Kanye West, anthropologically

Kanye West is interviewed by Vanity Fair.

The interview demonstrates that Mr. West is maturing into a fine young man with new powers of self understanding and self control.

None of which interest me at all.  

What I like about this interview is what happens when Lisa Robinson asks Mr. West:

What do you think Jay-Z has done for you?

West replies:

Man, everything–served as a big brother, the blueprint, our reality.  Someone to look up to.

And you were wondering how smart Kanye West is?  He gives three answers, leaping assumptions as he goes.  

"Jay-Z is a big brother."  Good opener.  Family metaphor evoked.  Status difference acknowledged. Deference given.  

West could have stopped there.  But he’s just getting started.

"Jay-Z is a blueprint."  I got whip lash and a nose bleed from this one.  (The doctors say I’ll be fine.  No cards or flowers, please.)  

Normally, when we pile up the comparisons, we build a small universe as we go. Each term is inclined to furnish (and sound) the same semiotic space.  New terms overlap a little.  We build an ensemble.

But, no.  West is done with the family metaphor.  Now he’s on to "blue print" and an entirely new metaphor.  He is telling us that Jay-Z is a world containing worlds, that he supplies that directions, the dimensions, for making music.

Holding a hankie to our bleeding noses, we understand the chances of Kanye West elaborating on this second metaphor are next to zero.  

Sure enough, he calls Jay-Z "our reality."  

Now Jay-Z defines the ontology of popular music.  He supplies the most fundamental assumptions of music and the creativity from which it springs.  

And now West goes full circle.

Jay-Z, he tells us, is "someone to look up to."

The big brother theme returns.  And we’re done.  Thanks for coming everyone.  Please drive safely.  

Now, I know what some people are thinking.  Surely, this is a mixed metaphor.  Surely, this is messy thinking.  And this would have been exactly right 20 years ago.  

But things have changed.  Now we want our creatives to leap cultural frames in a single bound, to find new metaphors while still in flight, to send us careening between cultural references.  Anything else seems a little thin, a little bit too much like culture before Kanye.  


Robinson, Lisa. 2010. “Hot Tracks: Kanye West.” Vanity Fair http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2010/11/kanye-201011 (Accessed October 11, 2010).

Listen to this

The Wire was a drama that ran on HBO for 50 episodes over 5 seasons, 2002 – 2008. 

What follows is from the opening moments of the first episode of the 4th season. 

A young assassin goes in a hardware store.  She is carrying the nail gun with which she shuts up the abandoned homes in which she leaves her victims. 

She is approached immediately by a salesman, a middle aged, white guy who lays on the sales pitch.  He wants the young assassin to buy the top of the line “Cadillac” nail gun.  It’s costs $650 so he’s pitching  hard.

Naturally, he has no idea is talking to a woman who managed to kill (and entomb) 5 people last week alone.  He thinks he is talking to a neighborhood contractor.

The conversation runs invisibly on two rails, the assumptions of the salesmen and the assassin working side by side.

The salesman calls his nail gun “powder driven.”

“Power driven?” the assassin asks.

“No, powder driven,” the salesman replies.

“Like gun powder.” she says.

He says, “The DX460 is fully automatic with a 27 calibre charge.  Wood, concrete, steel, she’ll throw a fastener into anything and for my money she handles recoil better than the Simpson or the P3500.”

She says, “27 calibre, huh.”

He says, “It’s not large ballistically but it’s enough.  Anything more than that and they would add to the recoil.”

It turns out the nail gun is metaphorically a lot like a real gun.  Or guys being guys, they just can’t resist making the comparison as an act of self aggrandizement. 

But all this gun-ish talk shakes something lose in the assassin.

She says, “I seen a tiny ass 22 drop a nigger plenty of days, man.  […]  Big joints, though.  Big joints just break the bones and you say ‘fuck it.’”  She laughs.

No more metaphor.  The concert is over.  The salesman sees he’s not talking to a contractor.  He’s speechless.  Someone has called his metaphor and raised it.  This is real guns, real violence, a real gangster.

The assassin goes out to the parking lot where her partner in crime is waiting in an SUV.  He asks if the new gun will hold a charge better, and she says,

“Fuck the charge.  This here is a gun powder activated, 27 calibre, full auto, no kick back, never through mayhem, man.  This shit is tight.” 

Her partner laughs and she says,

“Fuck nailing boards.  We could kill a couple of mother fuckers with this shit right here.”   Geez, we can dump the metaphor.  The nail gun isn’t like a gun.  It is a gun.  

Perfect.  Has anything this good appeared on TV before or since?  Now that you have your new iPad, load it up with a little David Simon genius.