The Problem With Similes

Yesterday I was talking to a friend about the new job they are about to start. They were understandably nervous and also quite concerned by the fact they were moving into a new industry which they knew very little about. In their own words they had “blagged” their way into the role...

“Someone else said to me ‘it’s like you’ve promised someone you’re a championship high diver and now they asked you to jump off the Olympic platform!”

We laughed at this image of him crashing through the air attempting to do a triple somersault to the shock horror of his expectant audience. Yeah OK, when he said it like that I thought- you’re screwed!

A few minutes later we said goodbye- I could still see the worry in my friend’s eyes as he imagined himself poised over that drop, about to take a massive leap into the unknown and be immediately un-masked as the fraud he believed himself to be.

I’m pretty sensitive to similes and generally wince at their use in every life. This was one of those occasions.

This simile had a powerful effect on my friend. It gave meaning and justification to his anxiety. It had blurred the lines between rational first day nerves and a hypothetical terrifying experience.

We use similes all the time, often without even realising. They are incredibly useful- giving meaning and depth to the thoughts and beliefs we are trying to convey. In poetry they can create meaning so profound it hits us in the solar plexus. They can be harmless and fun. But, because they are often an easy way of explaining something in every day language, they can engulf the subject they are supposed to be similar to. They become a singular distraction that is fixated upon rather than offer up depth and possibility.

As a result, we can become trapped with that image to the point of where we base our opinion and form our actions upon the simile, rather than what originally it was meant to represent.

An awful and extreme example I found myself wincing to was in a documentary called India’s Daughter.

In this powerful film, a lawyer for the defendants in a case of a brutal rape and murder argued that yes his client had committed the crime, but they should not be held responsible for it:

“A female is just like a flower. That flower always needs protection. If you put that flower in a gutter, it is spoilt. If you put that flower in a temple, it will be worshipped.”

This use of simile here is absurd, extreme and instinctively makes us uneasy. A powerful man creating powerful imagery for which he believes will sway mass opinion. Simile here was used as trickery, and unfortunately I think this kind of trickery happens too often.

That was an extreme example. Most simile is used quite innocently in everyday life. It can be a beautiful and meaningful way to communicate but it can also be used as a form of manipulation that I believe permeates our every day interactions more than we realise.

We need to be curious about the meaning behind the similes (and metaphors) given to us.  Are they enriching or are they a distraction from something else? Are they narrowing someone's point of view or offering up possibility?

The next time you hear someone using a simile (and you will all the time now) just take a moment to ask yourself “is this an attempt to give meaning or an attempt to manipulate?"

If it’s important, kindly challenge the person creating the simile- remind them that they have created an image that is distracting you from the topic at hand.

The fact is, whenever you hear someone say something is like something else, quite often it isn’t.