Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Metaphor and Readers' Attributions of Intimacy

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Metaphor and Readers' Attributions of Intimacy

Article excerpt

Previous theorists have suggested that figurative language may be an especially salient means by which speakers and addressees establish and recognize specific feelings of interpersonal closeness. To explore readers' sensitivity to this interpersonal function of figurative language use, brief stories were created that described interactions between two ambiguously related characters. In the course of these conversational narratives, one character always used either a metaphoric or literal referring expression to refer to some antecedent information from the story. Across three experiments, readers consistently judged these story characters as knowing each other better when their interactions contained metaphoric references. Moreover, this occurred even when addressees failed to give explicit evidence of having understood the critical expressions. To the extent that language use highlights assumptions about commonalities, readers may generate inferences about social relationships alongside more meaning-driven comprehension processes.

Language use is inherently social. That is, utterances typically do more than simply convey specific meanings-they also imply a great deal about the speaker's feelings and attitudes toward the interpersonal context. The words chosen by a speaker may suggest whether or not the speaker likes or dislikes his or her interlocutor, is comfortable talking about the current topic, or is trying to argue with or insult or flatter the addressee. While individuals can make their feelings known directly (e.g., "I really like you"), similar effects may also be achieved in a more indirect fashion, particularly through the use of nonliteral language. Indeed, a wide range of social psychological research has shown how indirect speech acts and other forms of nonliteral language can have implications about particular aspects of social interaction, such as the relative status of conversational participants, their need to be polite, and their desire to manage particular social impressions (for a review, see Holtgraves, 2002).

Most psycholinguistic research, however, has focused more on the cognitive aspects of how figurative expressions are understood than on the interpersonal consequences of such expressions (although see the chapters in Colston & Katz, 2005). In daily experience, though, figures of speech are typically embedded in highly specific interpersonal contexts, being produced by speakers for particular addressees in order to achieve specific communicative goals (Gibbs & Colston, 2002). While many of these goals may be cognitive in nature (e.g., concisely describing a novel or vague concept; Ortony, 1975), figurative expressions also enable speakers to achieve other, more socially oriented objectives (Gerrig & Gibbs, 1988; Gibbs & Gerrig, 1989). For example, when asked to provide reasons why one might use various types of figurative language, people frequently generate discourse goals like "to be humorous," "to be polite," "to show emotion," and "to add interest" (Roberts & Kreuz, 1994).

Nonliteral Language and Intimacy

An especially important goal that may be fulfilled through the use of nonliteral language is the creation and recognition of interpersonal bonds (Gibbs & Colston, 2002; Gibbs & Gerrig, 1989). Cohen (1979) stated this idea most clearly in an essay entitled Metaphor and the cultivation of 'intimacy, in which he argued that a critical function of metaphor is the "achievement of intimacy ... in which the maker and the appreciator of a metaphor are drawn closer to one another" (p. 6). The basic claim is that feelings of intimacy between speakers and addressees are created through their mutual understanding of particular figurative expressions. Although Cohen acknowledged that literal discourse also involves the recognition of commonalities between speakers and listeners, his view was that metaphor has the particular capacity to bring this shared sense of intimacy "into relief. …

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