The Metaphorical Mind

What our language reveals about how we think and who we are

When AT&T asked us to ‘Reach out and touch someone’, did they mean that literally?

Reach out and touch someone--literally.

In the 80s, AT&T urged people—metaphorically—to ‘reach out and touch someone’ with their telephone service. (A literal suggestion to do so would have been baffling and possibly criminal.) So what did this metaphor of contact evoke exactly, and why was it so effective a tag-line? Telephones have always defied the distances society has created through migration, colonization, and urbanization—a magic that can now seem ordinary. Telephones allow a grandmother to speak to her grandson she has never seen and a daughter to ask her father for college money. Even if only in an illusory or metaphorical sense, a telephone can bring people—the anonymity of a conference call notwithstanding—‘closer’ together, as if they were in the same room sharing a moment as a family, the subjective space shrinking without regard to the objective distance maintained.

What about today’s ubiquitous cell phone? It can be a surreal sight to turn a corner on a street and see a wall of people—without exception—on their cell phones coming toward you. It can be an unsettling sight altogether to see someone shout at a pocket of empty space, before noticing he or she is using a hands-free device. Is everyone speaking to their grandmother or asking for money over long distances? Further, what is the need in society for this immediacy in which the time between statement and response becomes shorter and shorter? People have no conception any longer of correspondence by letter and the anticipation of a reply.

AT&T’s campaign was, of course, during the pre-historic time before cell phones, let alone the more literal reach-out-and-touch-your-iPhone interface. It is interesting to note, however, that the encouragement to ‘reach out and touch someone’ can be regarded now as almost more of an admonition against the very use of the cell phone itself. Stop talking on your cell phone and ‘literally’ go reach out and touch someone. I once had a professor in an introductory sociology course practically lament the passing of the days of letter-writing and in apocalyptic overtones note how the cell phone was keeping people from speaking face to face any longer. I can remember thinking he was old and ‘out of touch’. Flash forward a Ph.D. later and I don’t accept text messages and would prefer students just to see me after class.

In a recent issue of the journal Nature it was reported that people using cell phones are predictable in their movement patterns. It turns out that even with the technology to span the globe in search of adventure and still be subjectively near someone at a moment’s notice (depending on your willingness to accept roaming charges) we are not going anywhere too far from each other. We like the social routine of contact and known places.

It seems there is a certain ambivalence we feel toward modern technologies upon which the AT&T metaphor was ‘touching’. Freud even noted in Civilization and its Discontents that

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“If there had been no railway to conquer distances, my child would never have left his native town and I should need no telephone to hear his voice; if traveling across the ocean by ship had not been introduced, my friend would not have embarked on his sea-voyage and I should not need a cable to relieve my anxiety about him.”

We use technologies so that we may be closer to those for whom we most care and we use them so that we may keep our distance from those we cannot or will not yet face. It is in this ambivalence that our language and metaphors seek some expression.

The contrast between ‘reaching out and touching someone’ and reaching out and touching someone reveals something more than simply our use of metaphors or so-called literal language: it reveals who we are as human beings. The kind of psychology necessary to understand us as human beings is one that does not smooth over our paradoxical beliefs and behaviors as if our mind were merely a mirror of a straightforward and less-than-metaphorical nature. Human beings are complicated and psychology ought to be more so than what textbooks present.

In one sense, one can regard language and metaphor as the making publicly observable of one’s private observations. It is a blurring of boundaries of sorts. This is a blog by someone whom you have not met. I doubt it will ever prove ‘touching’ in some overly sentimental sense of that word, but it is certainly true that even though we are no closer to each other than strangers, these words have brought us together for a short while. What language in general and a metaphor like ‘reaching out and touching someone’ in particular reveals is that—despite our seemingly paradoxical search for personal identity and individuality, as well as our insistence on privacy—we seek each other out. All psychology is inherently and constitutively a social psychology.

Christopher H. Ramey, Ph.D., is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Psychology at Drexel University, specializing in cognitive psychology.

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