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The PM’s metaphorical view of Covid-19

Bubbles, tails, embers, mountains: The PM's deft use of metaphors has helped guide us in the battle to eradicate Covid-19

New Zealand’s success at containing the coronavirus has benefitted from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s clear communication during her daily media briefings. One aspect of what made this effective was her choice of metaphors.

Metaphors play a vital role in how we communicate in daily life. They help us express what we are feeling: “I’m going to explode” or “I feel washed out”. They help us describe what’s going on: “a sharp pain” or “a dull day”. They also help to explain complex ideas: “trickle down” or “light bulb moments”.

Metaphors comprise one device in a toolkit of communicative devices that belong to the field of rhetoric. The power of metaphors is the way they take something subtle and complex and explain it by comparing it with something that is more concrete and familiar.

On March 23, when declaring the lockdown, Ardern said, “We have a window of opportunity to break the chain of community transmission.” Her reference to “windows” and “chains” make use of common metaphors, perhaps too common to register specifically in our minds.   

However, in her next daily briefing she floated another more specific metaphor. We heard her encourage us to, “stick to your bubble,” and "you can't spend time with other people outside of your bubble".

We are very familiar with the behaviour of bubbles: they froth on the ocean, they slide down the dishes, and they glide by on those summer afternoons when children form them with detergent and plastic hoops.

The use of bubbles here conjures up an image of me and my loved ones floating around inside a transparent membrane that separates my group out from others and protects us from unwanted intrusion.

By whatever process Ardern and her team came up with the bubble metaphor, during the course of the next two months it has proved a very effective way of communicating some key understandings.

Its use also illustrated four important features in making effective use of metaphors.  

First, an engaging metaphor draws, ideally, on our familiarity with simple everyday objects, and based on this, focuses on one aspect that helps convey a key concept. In this case the concept was the exclusiveness of a bubble. Bubbles cannot overlap. Once formed, those inside are committed to it, and cannot move back and forth.

Secondly, metaphors involve more than comparing two objects. What matters more is the way they map one set of relationships onto another. It’s not just the bubble, but also the space inside, the space outside, its position relative to other bubbles and the way bubbles negotiate movement around each other.

Thirdly, because metaphors map relationships, they allow us to explore in our imaginations a range of other possibilities. We can imagine our bubble “popping” when a stranger comes too close, we can think of “expanding our bubble” while still remaining committed to its exclusiveness, and we can imagine a family floating in a protective bubble as they walk down one side of a street.

Finally, a metaphor is always an approximation; it works off similar features, but is not an exact replica of what is going on. Many aspects of any metaphor will deviate from the reality, such as the way we can constantly use the internet to connect beyond our bubble.

For this reason, it pays to travel light; it pays to avoid allowing a metaphor to bed in too strongly or for too long. Because circumstances change, other metaphors may be of more use. Indeed, on May 7 while outlining Level 2, Ardern said, “You no longer need to stick to your bubble.” She was effectively announcing an end to this metaphor and thereby opening up space for other metaphors.

I must admit, I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye to my bubble. I felt safe hiding in it, and for Ardern to declare it obsolete, I suddenly felt uncomfortably exposed. But, she was right; the metaphor had done its job and was no longer needed.

Ardern must have been anticipating this because, in her April 27 briefing, when talking about the struggle to get rid of the virus, she said, “You see a tail and that tail is particularly tricky when you get down to those small numbers.” This reference conjures up a “tricky” animal with a long tail, perhaps a possum or a ferret, or some other tailed and devious animal difficult to eradicate.

Then on May 7, the same day she killed my bubble, she introduced two new contenders: she talked of “actively testing those who might be at risk of Covid-19 as we hunt to find any burning embers of the virus”, and “We think of ourselves as halfway down Everest. I think it is clear that no one wants to hike back up that peak. The descent is known to be even more dangerous so we must proceed with caution.”

Climbing down mountains and stomping out burning embers. These, and perhaps some additional metaphors, will be guiding us in our future battle to eradicate that tricky virus.

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