Culture Silences in Safety – Metaphor

Culture Silences in Safety – Metaphor

Big cheeseContinuing the theme of Culture Silences in Safety ( ) our next cab off the rank is metaphor. Although a sub-set of linguistics and Poetics, metaphor deserves special mention when it comes to tackling the wicked problem of culture ( ).

Indeed, the first step in understanding and learning how to affect culture change is to reject the simplistic safety favourite that culture is ‘what we do around here’.

Metaphor is language we live by. So much so, we don’t even know or are conscious of using it. What a strange thing that when we seek to explain something, we describe it by what it is not! ( ) .

The best place to start in understanding metaphor are the following:

  • Lakoff and Johnson (2003) Metaphors We Live By
  • Gibbs (ed.) (2008) Metaphor and Thought
  • Kovecses (2005) Metaphor in Culture
  • Kovecses (2010) Metaphor
  • Trim (2011) Metaphor and the Historical Evolution of Conceptual Mapping
  • Punter (2007) Metaphor

When we explore how Safety thinks about culture by the mantra ‘what we do around here’ we see the metaphorical emphasis on ‘doing’ and ‘around’. The focus is on behaviour and space/place when in reality culture transcends space and behaviour.

Metaphor, like affordance and semiotics, are learned and embodied (enculturated).

We use metaphor so intuitively we don’t know we do it. Metaphor is very much an unconscious way of speaking and description, that explains what something means by what it isn’t. Using metaphor is so automatic, we use them and they flow easily without thinking. The metaphors we use also reveal our worldview. For example, this blog started by using the metaphor of catching a taxi to explain a progress in theme. Yet, this discussion on Safety Cultural Silences is not a taxi and we are not on a taxi rank waiting for our next ride. Yet, the image of waiting on a taxi rank for the next cab is a common metaphor understood by people in a society that uses taxis and taxi ranks. There are a host of other metaphors that could be used to explain the same concepts (sequence, waiting, expectation, flow and theme). What the metaphor of ‘next cab off the rank’ does is use Poetic and visual thinking to embellish and add colour to meaning.

The metaphors we turn to (another metaphor) reveal our worldview. For example: ‘people are not a problem to control, but a resource to harness’ reveals the use of a controlling metaphor (harness) to counter a blaming metaphor (problem). Both metaphors are deficit in nature endeavouring to put a positive spin on a negative message. In the end, the meaning is that people should be ‘harnessed’. The use of metaphor reveals that the message holds no difference in meaning.

Metaphor can be verbal, textual and visual. For example, the use of the swiss-cheese metaphor enables thinking about systems as if there are ‘holes’ in them. The metaphor enables the lining up of holes in the cheese to enable thinking about causality that is linear. One could just as easily use the metaphor of jazz or rhizome ( ) to envision causality. However, th4ese are never the metaphors Safety likes when it comes to critical thinking and causality.

The most popular metaphors used in safety are: linear, hierarchical, mechanical and technical. Safety loves pyramids, curves and bow-ties.

Without some consciousness of metaphor as a foundation of culture, safety in its engineering mind-set imagines that language is literal, definitive and objective, when it is not. Do yourself a favour, read any incident investigation looking for the metaphors used and tell me what you discover.

Metaphor is not just a device of language. Metaphor reveals one’s unconscious framework of how one constructs meaning. For example, have a look how the word ‘safety’ is used as a metaphor and it will tell you how safety is being defined. If you want to know how safety is being defined, just listen for its use as metaphor.

When we learn about culture in the Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR) we use the metaphor of a cloud to tackle it ( ). One can be in a cloud, experience turbulence in the cloud, feel the cloud and yet feel powerless to effect it.

Of course, the use of any model, semiotic of metaphor is imperfect. Models, semiotics and metaphors are all interpreted, they are not neutral. Models, metaphor and semiotics are used to convey something but not everything, they are useful but not perfect. Metaphors both reveal but also hide meaning, by what is not stated. For example, analyse the mantra ‘vision zero’. Logically and rationally, one can’t ‘see’ nothing. When used as a goal the metaphor is numeric, when used as an ideology ( ) it becomes a religious experience. Whatever its use, the outcome of using it results in counting and brutalism. Metaphor drives culture.

So, a good start in detecting a safety worldview (ethic) is to do an audit of language, particularly metaphor: in text, semiotic and speech ( ). When the eye-as-camera metaphor is used for understanding perception and the brain-as-computer metaphor is used to understand Mind, you know that engineering drives how persons are viewed. Both metaphors of camera and computer enable a mechanical, technical understandings of humans and being and are deceptive and unhelpful. Both metaphors enable the myths of objectivism and behaviourism. This is not how fallible human ‘being’ should be understood. Human living is unpredictable, non-linear, emotional, imperfect and intuitive.

The reason why we live by metaphor is because it puts us in touch with our feelings and emotions. Metaphorical language transcends dictionary and encyclopaedia thinking, rationalist and behaviourist thinking. We gain our sense of meaning through metaphor not by rational explanation but through imagination. We also use metaphor because it is embodied, it comes from the way we learn language gesturally ( ). When I want to ‘point’ out something I use the metaphor of ‘point’ because we learned at the age of 3 months what pointing means. We learned how to attach the word ‘point’ to that gesture 3 years later. We are then able to use the word ‘point’ as a metaphor 10 years later. All of this comes from understanding the importance of linguistics in tackling risk ( ). Language is the bedrock of culture, not behaviours.

So, when military metaphors are used ( ) to explain safety, there is no ‘difference’ to traditional safety. When ‘capacity’ and measurement metaphors are used to explain safety, there is no ‘difference’ to traditional safety. When engineering metaphors are used to explain risk ( ), there is no ‘difference’ to traditional safety. When system metaphors are used to explain risk, there is no ‘difference’ to traditional safety. One can speak as much about a ‘new view’ as one likes but when the metaphors are the same, the worldview is the same and there is no difference ( ). When one uses the metaphor of ‘qanta’ to explain risk, there is no ‘difference’ to traditional safety.

Metaphors tell us about worldview and culture.

There are many ways to effect change in culture, one way (coupled with others) is to change metaphor.

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