Independent University Newspaper
Copenhagen Business School

Popular searches:

Independent University Newspaper

Copenhagen Business School

Why the words we use to describe the coronavirus matter

Is the coronavirus just a 'common cold'? Or are we 'at war' with an 'invisible enemy'? Our choice of metaphors has consequences in pandemic times.

ResearcherZone |   22. May 2020

By Dennis Schoeneborn, Professor, Department of Management, Society and Communication, CBS

We are in the midst of an unfolding crisis that humanity is struggling to understand. To make sense of the unknown, humans tend to rely on metaphors, analogies, or other rhetorical figures.

Metaphors, for example, allow for giving meaning to a (rather unknown) target domain by projecting and transferring insights from a (presumably better known) source domain. In other words, with a metaphor we can describe something we do not quite understand with something more tangible.

Similarly, in the current coronavirus pandemic, the choice of metaphors that are used matters as to how we react to the current crisis.

The flu and the war

In the public discourse about the current coronavirus pandemic, the sensemaking process includes analogies within the same domain.

We see this, for example, when US president Donald Trump stated at the beginning of the pandemic: »It’s just like a regular flu«. Or, when Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro compared the virus with a »little cold«.

We also see metaphors that tap into the other domains. One example is the ‘tsunami’ metaphor used by various medical professionals that originates from the source domain of natural disasters.

“We’re at war«” according to theFrench president Emmanuel Macron.

Trump’s framing of coronavirus as an »invisible enemy« or French president Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that »we’re at war« links to the source domain of human warfare.

World leaders, journalists, social media influencers, epidemiologists and other contributors to the public debate can be presumed to mobilize such metaphors not only to foster sense-making but ultimately also to steer citizens’ behavior.

As cognitive linguists Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky explain, metaphors tend to »have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues«.

Accordingly, it is worthwhile studying how and to what extent the use of different metaphors can inspire, influence and ‘organize’ individual and collective behavior.

The trade-off of metaphors

As the work by communication and management scholar Joep Cornelissen reminds us, the fruitfulness of a metaphor depends on (1) its aptness (whether a metaphor ‘fits’ and is meaningful) as well as (2) its heuristic value (the extent to which a metaphor offers new insights into an unfamiliar domain).

However, aptness and heuristic value tend to be in a trade-off relation: While close proximity between source and target domain can help strengthen the aptness of a metaphor, it tends to diminish the metaphor’s heuristic value at the same time.

The latter problem also occurs when the metaphorical connection between two domains becomes so well-established (like the link between epidemics and warfare) that the metaphor loses its ability to lend new meaning to the target domain.

A word’s metaphorical quality then ‘dies’ so-to-speak (like the term World Wide Web, where hardly anybody today would think of spider webs).

Keeping metaphors fresh

In contrast, metaphors can be kept vivid and alive via the power of dissimilarity: the greater the contextual distance between two domains (while ensuring aptness), the better the chance of a metaphor to be insightful.

This can be one of the reasons why novel and unusual combinations of metaphors, such as the notion of ’The Hammer and the Dance‘ by science blogger Tomas Pueyo, seems to have comparably better prospects to lend new meaning to the pandemic and thus inspire new and desirable modes of behavior.

The crisis of our imagination

However, the vast variety of metaphors (and their respective source domains) that are currently mobilized in public debates can serve as an indication that humanity is still in its early stage of comprehending the very challenges posed by the virus.

In this regard, the current crisis situation is also a crisis of collective imagination and sense-making.

Hence, in these turbulent and worrisome times it is more important than ever that contributors to the public debate think twice before mobilizing metaphorical imaginations – and to consider not only their aptness, heuristic value, or ’retweetability’ but also their potential (and sometimes unintended) consequences for individual, collective, and organizational behavior.

Ultimately, it is not only the ‘brute fact’ (as linguist John Searle would put it) of the pandemic that can severely harm us – but also the meanings that are ascribed to it (via metaphors or other modes of language) and that can materialize in very concrete actions.

One is likely to act less careful if the coronavirus is imagined to be ‘just like a flu’ – and more careful if the virus is imagined to have ‘chameleon-like’ features that make it hard to detect (e.g., recent evidence showing that the virus can also surface in damages to the kidneys, heart, and brain) or if one imagines exposing oneself to the virus is like playing ‘Russian roulette’ (as various contributors to the public debate aptly put it).

Language forms realities – and our actions

As recent research on ‘Narrative Economics’ by Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller demonstrates, the way we talk about reality can play a key role in the co-creation of major events and societal developments (e.g., the financial crisis in 2008).

Similarly, the current coronavirus pandemic serves as painful evidence for the importance of theories that highlight the constitutive role of communication for phenomena of orga­nization and organizing.

In other words, communication in the form of metaphors, narratives, or via other rhetorical means, especially if voiced by opinion leaders, tends to be not just ‘cheap talk’ but can be highly consequential.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Why the words we use to describe the coronavirus matterby

  • News

    Layoffs break the crucial trust between organisation and employee

    CBS is laying off a number of employees soon, which will affect our university in different ways. When employees are fired without having done anything wrong, it shatters the trust between the organisation and employees, while also taking a toll on productivity, according to a CBS expert. Layoffs also affect the ‘survivors’, who are forced to adapt to a changed workload and the loss of cherished colleagues.

  • News

    Here to help – at the touch of a button and at Campus Desk

    Exam anxiety? Lost student card? I’ve wedged my car between a Fiat 500 and a lamp post, can you help? You never know what you’ll be asked next. But that’s just how the Campus Desk team like it. And if they can’t fix your problem, they’ll know someone who can. CBS WIRE asked the team about the whole range of topics they advice on every day.

  • News

    Why so sudden? The CBS financial crisis explained

    Employees and union representatives have posed many questions in the wake of the 17 August announcement of a firing round. In this interview, University Director Arnold Boon explains how Senior Management has been working with the budget and a change of financial strategy since the fall of 2022, and why layoffs are now necessary.

  • Illustration: Ida Eriksen


    Here’s what you need to know about the master’s reform

    The political parties behind the master’s reform have adjusted their original proposal to shorten or reorganize up to 50 percent of master’s programmes after pressure from CBS and the other Danish universities. Fewer shortened master’s and longer to implement changes are some important revisions to the reform. CBS’ president is pleased that the government and other parties behind the reform have listened to some of the critique given by the universities but raises concern about cutting more study places in bachelor’s programmes.

  • News

    CBS Quiz Time: Unraveling the success story

    A successful university environment such as CBS is often associated with academic pursuits, but campus life extends far beyond the classroom. At CBS Quiz Time, a student society motivated by creative thinking and social engagement, students join in a refreshing range of creativity, excitement, and social interaction. CBS WIRE talked to Celine Møller-Andersen to find out about the society’s vision, strategies and the factors that are driving its rapid expansion.

  • Gif of the week
  • Blog

    Uncertain times: Essential for business schools to understand their market

    The alliance of European business schools met at CBS in June to enhance recruitment strategies, stay informed on industry trends, and analyse where the global economy is heading. The CBS MBA Programmes shares some key take-aways from Associate Dean and Professor Jesper Rangvid’s presentation.

  • News

    Working hard all summer: Bachelor Admissions

    The employees in charge of bachelor admissions at CBS are a small exclusive team. They ensure the validity of diplomas and the fulfilment of entry requirements for bachelor’s degrees at CBS – and, not least, that the applicants get the necessary help to upload the right documentation and find their way around the application procedures.

Follow CBS students studying abroad

CBS WIRE collaborates with

Stay connected