After reading Lakoff and Johnson’s classic Metaphors We Live By, which describes how we use metaphors from our everyday experience to understand existing and new ideas and help flex and shape our thinking, I’ve been thinking of metaphors to describe cultural dexterity.

I wanted to develop a powerful image that would help people visualise what cultural dexterity means in real terms and realise what it would mean to their work and life to become more culturally dexterous.

And after all, I want to change people’s minds! I want people to develop greater cultural dexterity so they can be much more effective in their business in international and culturally diverse environments.

I’ve kept a notepad by my desk to sketch out my ideas. I love doodling and cartooning but this is tough work – now I can see why professionals specialise in building metaphors for people and organisations who want to change people’s minds through powerful messaging. It’s a specialist craft!

I’ve tried to think of objects and concepts that are personally meaningful to us and which allow us to adapt differently to new environments without losing ourselves on the way. Trouble is, it’s hard to find concepts that don’t fall down in some way. For example:

  • An elastic band – wonderfully flexible but they can snap or go rotten. And they don’t exactly have a ‘foundation’.
  • A eucalyptus tree – fantastically adaptable, a true survivor of drought, fire and flood but a pest outside its indigenous Australian environment.
  • Monster dough – you always have your dough base and you can endlessly add to it and make all kinds of dough-based products. But – you know, dough. So…dough-y. And would that resonate outside North America?

Another challenge is to massage your metaphor until you get the right fit (Note my therapeutic and sartorial metaphors!):

  • Cultural dexterity is like an adapter plug’. Yes, but that’s not a metaphor.
  • Cultural dexterity is like a GPS system. Hmm. Well…
  • Cultural dexterity is an internal GPS system. Not bad!

What I like about the internal GPS is it’s based in your own being. And you can apply all kinds of geographical, navigational metaphorical to this image: you can navigate your way through the unfamiliar terrain of cultural environments you’re unfamiliar with, without losing your bearings or veering off course as you steer towards your destination. You can skillfully direct your team and negotiate partnerships with your stakeholders without being stuck at endless communication road blocks, dead ends or impasses.

Cultural Dexterity metaphors - changing people's minds

Power up your internal GPS

At the end, whether metaphor, simile or whatever, if the image is powerful enough to get people thinking about the power of being culturally dexterous and the uses they can make of this skill, that’s part of the process of developing said dexterity.

If it gets you thinking about images or concepts that have resonance in one context but not in another – in fact, which may be completely meaningless or offensive in another context – that’s great also because you’re thinking about how the way you behave and communicate, and how you may need to adapt this to different contexts if you want to be more effective.

These are my first sketches. What do you think of my metaphors? And what metaphors would you add?