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The body in the mind

Posted by Robin Abrahams  September 24, 2013 01:47 PM

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A mosquito bit my hand a few days ago, which means I briefly suffered a condition that has metaphorically afflicted me my entire life: an itchy trigger finger.

Here's another one: I have admirably thick skin. Not in the eyes of my critics, you understand, but in that of my dermatologist.

What body metaphors are or are not true for you? Are you weak-kneed in body but not in soul? Do you have 20/20 eyesight, and financial short-sightedness?

Our language and thought reflect our physical existence. (There is a whole area of psychology and philosophy dedicated to this insight, called embodied cognition.) Notice, some time, the number of body-based metaphors that you use and hear on a daily basis. See what I mean? Can you hear me now? Let me walk that statement back. My gut tells me you won't be hard-headed about this. Disagreement would be hard to swallow.

Our language is the language of seeing, hearing, touching, moving, eating, reproducing, suffering, savoring, dying.

This can cause tricky situations when the metaphorical language that most of us don't even think about is, in fact, another person's biological reality. When I was a professor a fellow teacher showed up at my office mortified to realize that during the course of a meeting with a blind student, he had repeatedly and reflexively asked, "Do you see?"

My colleague was more rattled by this than our student was. "Do you see?," though, doesn't involve denigrating blindness--as, say, referring to "Freud's blind spot about women" would. (Yeah, that was me.) "Lame," as an insult, has been deemed offensive, and I've stopped using it metaphorically, myself. But where do these lines get drawn? Would "I don't think that's a fertile area for study" be considered insensitive to people struggling to have children? Can a badly functioning bureaucracy be described as "arthritic"? I have heard some people argue quite sincerely against the use of the word "weak," and I don't think that's a concept that humans can get along without. 

Curious to hear people's thoughts on this. No whinging about "political correctness," though. That's boring and shuts down conversation. 

Don't forget, I've got an itchy trigger finger.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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