To make sure we all start from the same place, here are some definitions:

Catch-22 is a classic novel by Joseph Heller about the absurdity of war.  The author coined the phrase ‘Catch-22’ to describe the frustrating dilemma of a circular argument. For example, a mother instructing her young son: you are not allowed to go in the water until you have learnt to swim.

Cliché (French origin) is a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.  Examples: what goes around, comes around; it takes two to tango.

Metaphor (from Greek metaphora) is a figure of speech where a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.  Examples: she is the apple of my eye; light at the end of the tunnel.

Employing clichés and metaphors in everyday conversations and exchanges is well and good since in most cases no harm is done and the interaction is often made more interesting and fun, for the speaker and listener alike.  However, using the same technique in the more serious business, official or legal circumstances, can be misleading, unhelpful and often dangerous.  Consider the following propositions:

“So, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that there is no smoke without fire, the accused is guilty as a cat with cream all over its whiskers, therefore you must convict…”

“Look, our competitors are aggressive in their pricing, we have to go ‘quid pro quo’ or they will eat our lunch.  If we do not go for the kill now, we are telling our enemies we are ripe for the picking”

“Let’s not go around the houses and focus on the big picture, shall we? At the end of the day, when all is said and done, you must walk the walk and show them who wears the trousers around here”

These are fictional utterances which, somewhat exaggerated but, I hope they resonate with you as being similar to things you had heard or experienced in the past.  None of them are helpful to the audience, especially the first one where the consequences could be serious to the person on trial.  The other two are almost completely meaningless and unhelpful to the listener!

I worked with an HR manager who had a talent for not understanding metaphor at all. Once you used a metaphor with him, he picked it up and ran with its literal meaning, dragging you behind until you shouted at him to get back to the subject matter.  If you mention someone loading a monkey on your shoulder, he focuses on the monkey and starts describing how the challenge can be difficult because the monkey can be large and over-excitable that is never satisfied, no matter how many bananas or how much peanuts you give it.  Describing a group of people as headless chicken gives him a great opportunity to describe the fictional scene of a farm with chicken running around spluttering blood all over the yard and endless arguments amongst the chicken as to which head belongs to whom!  I learned to discipline myself with this manager by using straightforward English, without relying on the imagery of metaphors or clichés, unless I had a couple of hours to waste that day.

If you ignore the seriousness of the situation, the outcome can be comical and amusing, especially when metaphors and clichés are jumbled up.  Here are some examples:

  • The ball is in your court now so, let’s stop playing games here
  • I am sorry, my hands are tied so I have no option but to sink or swim
  • It’s a dog eat dog in these shark-infested waters
  • Let’s not beat around the bush and grab the nettle by the horns
  • When the wind is blowing up your skirt, you have to show who wears the trousers
  • Look George, my ass is on the line so, stop sticking your nose in this matter

The fun thing about these examples is that absurd as they may seem, they are almost wise but, not for the points the speaker is trying to make; which defeats the entire object of clichés and metaphors of enhancing the effectiveness of communication.

And this is the entire point of my rambling: Like driving, we all think we are great at it, which makes you wonder: if everyone is such a good driver, how come we have accidents?  Similarly, if we are all such great communicators, how come we have so many disputes and misunderstandings?  Clearly, our poor use of clichés and metaphors are the same as our misjudgement of speed, distance and the basic mechanics of the vehicles we are driving.

Do I make myself crystal clear, or am I barking up the wrong tree?