Metaphorically (or Literally) Speaking: Figurative Language and Personality Type
“All things are metaphors.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
We all have our own preferences when it comes to learning new information, and these preferences may influence how we explain things as well. Some of us are visual learners who prefer charts, diagrams, and pictures to text; others are auditory learners who may read directions aloud to better understand them.
And yet another way of interpreting the world is through the use of figurative language: employing metaphors, similes, analogies, and other devices to demonstrate how a new or foreign concept is like a more familiar one. But since this style of communication isn’t necessarily effective for, or appreciated by, everyone, one might wonder if such a difference could be explained, if only in part, by variances in our core personality traits.
To explore this question, we asked our readers whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “You like using analogies and metaphors to understand and explain things.” On the whole, a strong majority agreed (79%), but their responses revealed one personality aspect in which they were significantly divided: the Energy aspect, which, of course, gets straight to the question of how we see the world and process information. Intuitive types were 14% more likely to agree that they enjoy using figurative language than Observant types (86% vs. 72% agreeing, respectively).
What does this division mean for how we understand ideas and how we communicate them to others? Let’s examine the results in more detail below.
Analysts and Diplomats (86% and 85% agreeing)
“An idea is a feat of association, and the height of it is a good metaphor. If you have never made a good metaphor, then you don’t know what it’s all about.” – Robert Frost
All Analyst and Diplomat personality types share the Intuitive trait, so it’s not surprising that they were the Roles most likely to agree that they like to use analogies and metaphors to understand and explain things. Intuitive types are, after all, highly imaginative, and they love exploring new possibilities and talking about ideas. It might be something of a surprise, however, that these Roles were nearly tied in their responses, given that we tend to associate Analysts with rational logic – which might on the surface seem at odds with figurative language – and Diplomats with more creative, artistic pursuits and forms of expression. Let’s take a closer look at that assumption.
Analysts are indeed rational and logical personality types, which is a function of their Thinking trait. Their logical approach to their surroundings may actually help them discover patterns and connections between seemingly disparate concepts or situations that others wouldn’t see. Coming up with figurative ways to describe those connections seems only natural. Sir Isaac Newton, who is considered to be a Logician (INTP), developed his theory of gravity 350 years ago, and teachers still tell the anecdote of the apple falling on his head (however true or embellished it may be) to help students understand this scientific concept.
In addition to being rational and logical, Analyst personalities are also very intellectual and inventive, and their Intuitive trait helps them take their ideas to the next level. Never quite content to accept conventional wisdom, Analysts often excel at both conceiving visions that will change the status quo and at devising plans and strategies for making those visions a reality. And while it may be easy for them to understand the most intricate details of a sophisticated problem, conveying their ideas and solutions to others, especially people who are unfamiliar with the matter at hand, can be a challenge. They may find that metaphors, analogies, and other figurative devices are the easiest way to relate their ideas in more human terms that everyone can understand.
Of all the personality types, Debaters (ENTP) and Commanders (ENTJ) were the most likely to agree with our research statement, tied at 87% each. Debaters are always testing out ideas and crafting arguments, and they may find figurative language to be an essential aspect of the art of persuasion. A vivid metaphor can certainly bring one’s argument to life, and an emotional appeal always hits harder when delivered by way of a dramatic analogy or anecdote. As one famous Debater personality type, Mark Twain, once wrote, “There is nothing in the world like persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus.”
Commanders are also interested in using figurative language to persuade people, but for the purpose of gaining buy-in and achieving goals – not for the sake of winning an argument. Natural and strong-willed leaders, Commanders recognize that even the best ideas are useless if they can’t be made a reality, and they understand how to use language to motivate and mobilize people. When Steve Jobs, a Commander type, launched the iPhone in 2007, he spoke of it metaphorically as a “revolution,” even as he engaged the audience in a practical product demonstration. By the time he was finished, what member of that audience didn’t want to purchase a revolution? Nearly a decade later, we all know how ubiquitous the iPhone has become.
Diplomat personality types are equally adept at using figurative language to communicate ideas and to motivate and inspire others – but they often do so in the service of the greater good, or to help someone else, rather than to advance their own agendas. Generally altruistic types, many Diplomats wish to help people see a vision for a better future, and metaphors, analogies, and storytelling are highly effective techniques for creating memorable images that allow others to clearly envision their ideals. As Feeling personalities, they also use these techniques to connect with others on an emotional level, so their ideas will resonate deeply.
Consider how different Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would have been if King, an Advocate (INFJ) personality type, hadn’t used figurative language. Would we still remember that speech today if he hadn’t spoken of the “dark and desolate valley of segregation” and the “sunlit path of racial justice,” if he hadn’t painted scenes of the children of former slaves and former slave owners sitting down at the table together, joining hands as sisters and brothers? Sometimes, figurative language is exactly what is needed to create an indelible impression, in a way that a direct line of reasoning never could. Even for Diplomats who aren’t out changing the whole world, a well-used metaphor or analogy can make a significant impact in more intimate ways, such as lending moral support to help a loved one through a tough time. And for some Diplomat personalities, the creative, playful character of figurative language can be just plain fun, even if others around them might question its utility.
Explorers and Sentinels (73% and 71%)
“Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.” – Ernest Hemingway
A healthy majority of Explorers and Sentinels also agreed that they enjoy using analogies and metaphors, but their lower agreement rates indicate that these types may have some different feelings about figurative language. As Ernest Hemingway – an Entrepreneur (ESTP) personality type known for his sparse, straightforward writing style – attested, it is certainly possible to communicate complex ideas creatively without overburdening your language with such figurative devices. Explorers’ and Sentinels’ shared Observant trait makes them pragmatic and down-to-earth. These personalities tend to prefer to deal with the factual and the concrete, rather than focusing on abstract theories and hidden meanings. These preferences can extend to how they employ language.
So while Explorers may make use of common idioms or images to get their point across, their practical disposition makes them inclined to avoid more elaborate circumlocutions, in favor of plainer speech. Vague ideas – the sort that metaphors can make more accessible – often bore people with Explorer personality types, who prefer more immediate, concrete methods of dealing with obstacles and interacting with people.
Sentinels may be even less likely than Explorers to employ figurative speech when imparting information or thinking through a problem, whether for their own benefit or another’s. If Explorer personalities are realists who excel at quickly inventing solutions on the spot, the strength of Sentinels lies in their ability to execute an existing plan, step-by-step. And, as with Explorers, Sentinels typically have little use for language that leaves room for interpretation. Clarity and directness, for them, is key to the successful completion of tasks and achievement of goals.
Defenders (ISFJ) were the personality type least likely to agree that they like using analogies and metaphors to understand and explain things (68%). In addition to their Observant trait, Defenders’ Judging trait affected their responses. The Tactics aspect was the second-most influential factor in our survey, with Prospecting types agreeing at 82%, compared to 77% of Judging types. While Prospecting types may be comfortable with the sort of spontaneity that can inspire off-the-cuff use of figurative language, Judging types prefer structure, predictability, and especially clarity. Defenders specifically are personality types who are deeply devoted to helping others, and they often do their work in the background. Caring more about doing good than calling out their own accomplishments, they may prefer not to draw attention to themselves by using excessive figurative language, which some may view as ostentatious or simply unnecessary.
Of course, none of this is to say that Explorers and Sentinels can’t be inspirational visionaries or leaders in their own right, just because these personalities may not use figurative language as frequently or as naturally as Analysts and Diplomats do. Queen Elizabeth II (a Defender) and George Washington and Angela Merkel (both Logisticians [ISTJ]) come to mind as examples of important leaders who have shaped the world in their own reasoned, even reserved, ways. “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough,” George Washington wrote, “to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an honest man.” One can’t get much more forthright than that.
Interestingly, Strategies had little impact on our readers’ agreement with the statement, “You like using analogies and metaphors to understand and explain things.” The Social Engagement Strategy agreed at a rate of 82%, People Mastery at 80%, Constant Improvement at 79%, and Confident Individualism at 77%.
Extraverts were slightly (3%) more likely to agree than Introverts, probably because the statement included explaining things, which implies communicating with other people, something Introverted personalities aren’t always comfortable doing. But our readers’ Identities played almost no part in this survey, with Turbulent types being just 1% more likely to agree than Assertive types. These results confirm that when it comes to our preferences for figurative language, it’s really how we see the world – not how we interact with others and not how confident we feel in ourselves – that matters.
Figurative language is a nearly inescapable part of our individual lexicons, as the results from this survey indicate – even those personality types who don’t employ it as often still agreed in solid majorities with our research statement.
However, some types seem to use such language more than others, which can have both its drawbacks and its advantages. After all, particularly when a language barrier is involved, a metaphor that is entirely clear in one person’s mind may be nonsensical to another. On the other hand, some of our more technical or theoretical concepts may be virtually impossible to understand without first being articulated in a manner that lies within our existing frame of reference.
As with many personality-influenced preferences, neither figurative flare nor plain speech is necessarily better. Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when using figurative language is to know your audience, and your purpose.
Do you enjoy using figurative language, or do you find it extraneous to making your point? Put your two cents in the comments below.