Metaphors of U.S Cultural Diversity


Researchers explain that many cultural groups live within the borders of the United States. When people talk about the blend of U.S cultural groups, their ideas are often condensed into vivid descriptions. These summary images, called metaphors, imply both descriptions of what is and, less obviously, prescriptions of what should be.  This article focuses on four metaphors that have been used to describe the cultural mix within the United States, a melting pot, a set of tributaries, a tapestry, and a garden salad.

The Melting Pot Metaphor

Perhaps the oldest metaphor for describing multiple cultures in the United States is the melting pot. America, according to this image, is like a huge crucible, a container that can withstand extremely high temperatures and can therefore be used to melt, mix, and ultimately fuse together metals or other substances. This image as the dominant way to represent the ideal blending of cultural groups at a time when the hardened steel that was forged in the great blast furnaces of Pittsburgh helped to make the United States into an industrial power. According to this view, immigrants from many cultures came to the United States to work, live, mix, and blend together into one great assimilated culture that is stronger and better than the unique individual cultures of which it is composed. Some argue that as dynamic as the melting pot metaphor has been in the United States, it has never been an accurate description. The tendency for diverse cultures to melt together and assimilate their unique heritages into a single cultural entity has never really existed. Rather the many cultural groups within the United States have continuously adapted to one another as they accommodated and perhaps adopted some of the practices and preferences of other groups while maintaining their own unique and distinctive heritages.

The Tributaries Metaphor

A currently popular metaphor for describing the mix of cultures in the United States is that of tributaries or tributary streams or tributary systems.America, according to this image is like a huge cultural watershed, providing numerous paths in which the many tributary cultures can flow. The tributaries maintain their unique identities as the surge toward their common destination. This view is useful and compelling. Unlike the melting pot metaphor, which implies that all cultures in the United States ought to be blended to overcome their individual weaknesses, the tributary image seems to suggest that it is acceptable and desirable for cultural groups to maintain their unique identities. However, when the metaphor of tributaries is examined closely, there are objections to some of its implications. Tributary streams are small, secondary creeks that ultimately flow into a common stream, where they combine to form a major river. This notion rests in the hidden assumption that the cultural groups will ultimately and inevitably blend together into a single, common current. Indeed, there are far fewer examples of cultures that have totally assimilated into mainstream U. S.culture than there are instances of cultures that have remained unique. Further, the idea of tributaries blending together to form one main stream suggests that the tributaries are somehow subordinate to or less important than the mighty river into which they flow.

The Tapestry Metaphor

A tapestry is a decorative cloth made up of many strands of thread. The threads are woven together into an artistic design that may be pleasing to some but not to others. Each thread is akin to a person, and groups of similar threads are analogous to a culture. Of course, the types of threads differ in many ways, their thickness, smoothness, color, texture, and strength may vary. The threads can range from gossamer strands to inch-thick yarn, from soft silk to course burlap, from pastel hues to fluorescent radiance, and from fragile spider webs to steel cables. The weaving process itself can vary from one location to another within the overall tapestry. Here, a wide swatch of a single type of thread may be used; there, many threads might be interwoven with many others, so no single thread is distinguished; and elsewhere, the threads may have been grouped together into small but distinguishable clumps. Although the metaphor of a tapestry has much to commend it, the image is not flawless. After all, a tapestry is rather static and unchangeable. One does not typically unstring a bolt of cloth, for instance, only to reassemble the threads elsewhere in a different configuration. Cultural groups in the United States are more fluid than the tapestry metaphor might imply; migrations, immigrations, and mortality patterns all alter the cultural landscape. Despite its limitations, one finds this metaphor preferable to the previous two.

The Garden Salad Metaphor

Like a garden salad made up of many distinct ingredients that are being tossed continuously, some see the United States as made up of a complex array of distinct cultures that are blended into a unique, and one hopes tasteful, mixture. Substitute one ingredient for another, or even change how much of each ingredient is present, and the entire flavor of the salad may be changed. Mix the salad differently and look and feel will also differ. A salad contains a blend of ingredients and it provides a unique combination of tints, textures, and tastes that tempt the palate. Like the other metaphors, the garden salad is not without its flaws, to contrast to the tapestry image, which implies that the United States is too fixed and unchanging; a garden salad suggests an absence of firmness and stability. A typical garden salad has no fixed arrangement; it is always in a state of flux. 

There are explanations of the explicit nature of metaphors and their effects on communication. They tell us that one way of thinking about the relationship between language and thought is to look at metaphors. A metaphor is an expression where a word (or words) is used outside of its normal conventional meaning to express a similar concept (Lakoff, 1992). For example, “you are my sunshine.” Although an individual cannot literally be sunshine, comparing someone to sunshine expresses a particular positive meaning. Experts used to think that metaphors are about language, or literary writing, not useful for understanding everyday speech. Lakoff disagrees and proposes that metaphors are part of thinking, one way we organize our thoughts, in everyday living, in fact, metaphors are “a major and indispensable part of our ordinary conventional way of conceptualizing the world, and that our everyday behavior reflects our metaphorical understanding of experience.” Understanding a culture’s metaphors, then, helps us understand something about the culture itself. Metaphors can also be a useful way to understand other cultures. Some metaphors are universal. Experts agree that metaphors reflect cultural beliefs and values.


Lakoff G. (1992) The contemporary theory of metaphor. In Ortony A. Metaphor and thought (2nd ed) pp 202-251.New York:CambridgeUniversity Press


Source by Alusine Melvin Moseray Kanu DA