Mark Powell takes a look at the influence of metaphor on the language of business and considers some of the key underlying metaphors embedded within different cultures.

Business is business, they say, but the language of business is metaphor. Flip through the FT and you’ll routinely find ‘inflation soaring’, ‘markets stagnating’ and ‘economies suffering’.  Everyday lexical items like ‘cash flow’, ‘brainstorming session’ and ‘advertising campaign’ are all figurative, not factual, taken respectively from the domains of water, weather and war – domains without which ‘stock market flotations’, ‘windfall profits’ and ‘takeover battles’ would be literally unthinkable.

Critics of metaphor, of course, point out that many of the examples above are hopelessly culture-bound and not worth teaching in the age of global business. So I was fascinated to read that, according to cross-cultural management professor Martin Gannon, nations themselves may each have their own underlying metaphor.

In Germany, apparently, it’s the symphony – the precise orchestration of individual talent. The Germans, it seems, do literally ‘conduct business’ and perhaps it’s no coincidence that both musical instruments and Mercedes engines can be ‘fine-tuned’.

This got me wondering whether, if we only knew the right access code, we could actually ‘speak the same the language’ as the cultures we’re doing business with.

In Japan the key metaphor is the garden. So if we talked about ‘growth strategies’ and ‘cultivating business relationships’, would ‘the ideas we planted’ finally ‘come to fruition’?

In Britain it’s the house. So if we ‘constructively’ spoke of ‘plans’, ‘projections’ and ‘firm foundations’, would we be ‘building a sound basis’ for doing business?

In Brazil it’s predictably the samba. So to ‘keep in step’ with our Brazilian ‘partners’, we must ‘co-ordinate our efforts’ and, in short, ‘make all the right moves’.

France’s cultural metaphor is, predictably, wine, but unfortunately I’ve run out of column space. So, until next time, cheers!