The Verbal Communication of Emotions: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

By Susan R. Fussell | Go to book overview

— 6 —

What's Special About Figurative
Language in Emotional
Communication?

Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr.

John S. Leggitt

Elizabeth A. Turner

University of California at Santa Cruz

People often employ figurative language to verbally express their emotions. Ask someone to talk about an important part of his or her life, and metaphor, metonymy, irony, and other tropes will pervade their narrative. This chapter examines the role that figurative language plays in emotional communication. We argue that figurative language is especially useful for expressing the nuances of emotion, and for evoking particular emotional reactions in others, because it tightly reflects people's figurative conceptualizations of their emotional experiences. Figurative language is also special for the power it affords speakers to evoke particular emotions in others. We begin this chapter by describing speaker-listener dynamics in emotional communication. Next, we present several sections on the importance of figurative language in talking about and evoking emotional experiences. Following this, we describe two sets of empirical studies that looked at how listeners emotionally respond to metaphor and irony. We specifically show how emotional responses to metaphor and irony differ from those to literal language. Moreover, listeners draw different assumptions about what speakers intend to communicate when using figurative language compared to when they speak literally. Finally, we offer some challenges for future work on figurative language, emotion, and communication.


THE DYNAMICS OF EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION

Understanding the role of figurative language in emotional communication requires some recognition of the interpersonal dynamics of conversational interaction. People speak figuratively for reasons of politeness, to avoid responsibility for the import of what is communicated, to express ideas that are difficult to communicate using literal language, and to express thoughts in a compact and vivid manner (Ortony, 1975). Consider the following narrative from

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