Redefining Time: The Power of Metaphors in Shaping Our Professional Lives
Time is money—you've heard that, right? The adage has permeated our cultural ethos to such an extent that this metaphor is not just poetic shorthand but a cognitive blueprint that guides how we allocate and perceive time.
It prompts us to measure time in units, mirroring monetary transactions, and influences our behaviour—we save, spend, invest, and even waste time as if it were a tangible asset. Yet, the uniformity this metaphor suggests belies the subjective nature of time, its fluidity, and its often non-linear progression.
This perception of time as something that can be measured as neatly and consistently as grams of gold is a Western idea.
Many non-Western cultures embrace a more fluid concept of time. In parts of Latin America, Africa, and the Arab world, for instance, time is often perceived as a more malleable and less quantifiable element of life, leading to a more flexible approach to scheduling and punctuality.
This cultural variance in time perception highlights the profound influence of cognitive linguistics in shaping our attitudes and actions.
In the West, we don't just say "time is money". We treat it as if it were. Not only does the metaphor create behaviour, it creates a value judgement. We negatively judge those who treat time differently from us.
The impact of metaphors extends beyond personal perceptions and societal norms and values to the way in which we frame and solve problems.
As with all complex issues, crime is suffused with metaphors. Crime is often portrayed as an epidemic or a wave of disease that plagues cities and infects communities. A second view depicts crime as a predator–criminals hunt or catch their victims. These aren’t just rhetorical flourishes; they’re mind-changing tools with very real consequences.
In a series of five experiments, Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky from Stanford University have shown how influential metaphors can be.
First, Thibodeau and Boroditsky asked 1,482 students to read one of two reports about crime in the City of Addison. Later, they had to suggest solutions for the problem. The first report described crime as a “wild beast preying on the city” and “lurking in neighbourhoods”. After reading these words, 75% of the students put forward solutions involving enforcement or punishment, such as calling the National Guard or building more jails. Only 25% suggested social reforms such as fixing the economy, improving education or providing better health care.
The second report was the same, except it described crime as a “virus infecting the city” and “plaguing” neighbourhoods. After reading this version, only 56% opted for more enforcement, while 44% suggested social reforms. The metaphors affected how the students saw the problem and how they proposed to fix it.
So, metaphors don’t just change our behaviour and values over time. They immediately change the way we think about problems and their solutions.
In December 2023, Etsy CEO Josh Silverman announced the company was cutting 11% of its workforce. He ended the email with this metaphor;
“The waters may be rough right now, but there’s no other ship I’d rather be on and no other crew I’d rather be with as we weather this cycle and emerge even stronger on the other side.”
The common saying is “weather this storm”. Why change it?
Metaphors aren’t just stand-alone cues. They form frames. Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. They are part of what cognitive scientists call the “cognitive unconscious”—structures in our brains that we cannot consciously access but know by their consequences, what we call “common sense” unconscious, automatic, effortless access to our frames.
Because all words are defined relative to conceptual frames, when you read a word, its frame is activated in your brain. When you read the word storm, you can’t help but think of a sinking ship. A sinking ship is the last image a CEO wants investors to picture in a conversation about layoffs.
Metaphors are far more than linguistic flourishes; they are cognitive frameworks that shape our understanding of the world, influence our decisions, and guide our behaviour. As leaders and communicators, we must recognise the power of metaphors and choose them with intentionality.
For instance, the common usage of war metaphors in business, like "defending market share" or "hitting the ground running," sets a combative tone, often obscuring the fundamental goal of business: to create value for customers. Shifting to metaphors that emphasise opportunity, cooperation, and customer delight could profoundly alter corporate strategy and culture.
Metaphors also carry cultural significance, which can be a powerful tool for cross-cultural communication and understanding. For example, using a UK metaphor in a US-based context, or vice versa can demonstrate an appreciation for and connection to different cultures. This fosters mutual respect and opens doors to new ways of thinking and problem-solving.
Returning to our initial metaphor, "time is money," if we reframe this concept and think of energy, rather than time, as our primary currency, it could revolutionise how we approach productivity and effectiveness. This shift from a time-centric to an energy-centric perspective could lead to more sustainable, effective personal and organizational growth strategies.
They are not merely tools of expression but instruments of perception, capable of aligning teams, shaping corporate culture, and bridging cultural divides. In our journey through the complexities of professional communication and leadership, let us be discerning and deliberate in the metaphors we employ, understanding their capacity not just to describe reality but to shape it.