Monday, July 08, 2013

Metaphor - in Business Language

I recently ran across a posting about annoying business jargon.

The author felt these old cliched phrases, words, terms, and metaphors should be dropped.

I thought about this and specifically about the one I had googled originally to determine its origin

"open the kimono"

I was surprised to discover that there were many postings, articles, fora, etc where this phrase was considered both racist and sexist. And I thought, "how sad".

Metaphor in language adds color, flow, imagery, and beauty to our speech and writing, There are some, George Lackoff in particular,  who believe we only think in metaphor and that this ability is central to our ability to reason.

Metaphors produce an image and connect it to an abstract idea. Consequently, they aid in both understanding and retention. If you have eve heard of a memory palace as a method for remembering rings, you know how this works for retention. For some reason our minds seem to retain spatial and disconcerting or humorous images better than just blunt words and phrases.

Without metaphor, we would have no Shakespeare...he would have had nothing much to say in any way that audiences wanted to hear it.

So let's return to the phrase "open the kimono". In a business context, it is typically used (or was in the 1980s-1990s) to refer to a vendor inviting a client or partner into a bit more intimate relationship wherein the vendor's future plans would be disclosed. I was first exposed to the phrase in the 1980 time frame when a vendor offered to have us visit their offices in San Antonio and they would "open the kimono" about future hardware plans. The company I was with at the time was a large customer in both the US and overseas.

The phrase came up again when an IBM salesman offered a similar opportunity in the 1990s as my own company was considering which computer to invest in.

It certainly never occurred to me that it was sexist or racist. It is a beautiful metaphor for showing someone that which most others do not get to see.

To deconstruct the phrase (although I typically HATE deconstruction), kimono, in Japanese, means 'clothing'. It is gender neutral as both men and women wear kimono. In American English, the word has more of a connotation of a woman's garment, since many women wear long, loose kimonos as dressing gowns or robes.  So I will grant that, to a general American speaker and listener, the image called up by "open the kimono" is probably that of a woman opening her dressing gown to show her body beneath.

If you know a bit of Japanese culture, the image might rather be of a man relaxing on a sofa with his kimono or robe unbelted, but fully clothed underneath. In Japan, the phrase is equivalent to "loosen your tie" meaning to get comfortable so we can talk plainly and directly.

However, here in the US it is mostly used to imply a degree of revelation of that which is secret. Certainly, the image of a woman with a slightly open kimono correlates with this notion of revelation and intimacy.

Is it racist because the Kimono is a Japanese garment? Of course not. The garment has been a staple of women's lingerie in the US since at least the 1920s. There is no implication of a specifically Japanese woman wearing the kimono that is opened, it could be anyone's kimono. This MAY be the image conjured in the listener's mind, but is an ethnic and cultural connection, not a racist one. That is like saying that use of the word pyjama is a racial slur against Indians...the word originated there.

Personally, when I hear the phrase, the image conjured in my mind is that of my American wife of English and German extraction since she wears kimono often both casual ones around the house and formal ones out in public. The casual ones are silk, bought in Tokyo. The formal ones are custom made from non-traditional materials like leather and latex to re-contextualize their meaning in the syntax of fashion. They are all beautiful works of art that can be worn and hang on our walls when not in use.

Is the phrase sexist? Well, I will admit that it is sexual in that it conjures up, in most American minds, the image of a woman opening or removing her robe. It is also used, as I said above, to describe an invitation to intimacy...a vendor revealing plans to a customer. Consequently, we can say that the phrase uses sexual imagery to communicate its meaning.

This does not mean it is sexist. It connects a very common event, that of the start of sexual enticement or intimacy, to the abstract concept of revealing secrets. By doing so it enforces understanding and retention. The phrase helps the hearer remember and understand that the speaker is offering something a bit secret, not generally released, and not to be bandied about or shouted from the rooftops (two more metaphors).

It does not, in any way, denigrate women...sexual imagery does not intrinsically do so. We are sexual beings and we are deeply connected mentally and psychologically to sexuality. The use of sexual imagery in metaphor is important to our understanding and retention of concepts in business, technology, architecture, and manufacturing, not to mention advertising, rhetoric, politics, and storytelling. If we were to expunge such language from our speech, we would be far the less for it.

Sexual imagery does not have to be sexist. The Calvin Klein men's underwear ad in Times Square many years ago was somewhat sexual, but not sexist. It did not denigrate men; indeed it presented them as art. Nude painting and photography may be sexist sometimes and is certainly sexual, but it does not HAVE to be sexist. It may be artistic, celebrating the form and the humanness of the subject.

I submit that anyone who is disturbed by the sexual imagery encoded in the phrase, "open the kimono" needs to examine their own feelings and reactions to a part of human nature that is intrinsic, encoded, and enlivening. And that metaphor in language which uses sexual imagery is an effective and impressive way to better communicate between people.

That said, I do think that some metaphors SHOULD be dropped, because they are sexist, racist, or hurtful. See the recent Paula Deen scandal for more information on THAT subject. But we should be careful about demanding the elimination of metaphors simply on the basis of their sexual or ethnic foundations.

With regard to the Forbes article linked at the top of this post, yes, some of the jargon listed is cliched, hackneyed, and over-used. but to simply replace these terms with others or with purely blunt words of one syllable or less would discolor language, lessen understanding, be more time-consuming, and sterilize the amazing beauty of our language (or rather languages, since many of these phrases have been taken into English).

Let me close with the notion that, as any writer must, I have, indeed opened the kimono with this post and with this blog. I have shared intimacies, thoughts, opinions, and insights which I might not have done if I did not have metaphors as a tool to use in communicating.

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