Symbols, Signs and Culture

Introduction As soon as we recognise that language is central to culture we are forced to recognise that cultural communication is very much tied up with the use of signs. In what follows, I will try to give some idea of what humans are capable of accomplishing through our use of signs and how our signs, always culturally conditioned, both enrich and complicate our ability to communicate as cultural beings. Symbolic Creatures Academics debate whether it is possible to think without words or images. While it would seem that such thought is possible[1], Malkawi is right in saying, “Language is the mold that thought is poured into, and thought is the content inside that linguistic mold.”[2] Indeed, Weisberger saw this mold as so strong that a child’s first step is “not one of mastering language but rather of being dominated by it and by the views that it imposes.”[3] Sapir and Whorf not only noted significant differences in the way in which people in different cultures perceive their social and physical environments. They further insisted that language does not merely contain or reflect ideas but actually shapes perception and thought. It has been demonstrated that Sapir and Whorf exaggerated their case and today, linguistics generally operate with what is described as a “weak form” of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Sapir and Whorf went so far as to argue that the very colours people see are predetermined by what our cultural language prepares us to see. But research conducted in the 1960s indicated that all humans do in fact have the same visual physiology and have similar sense perceptions of colour. The difference consists in the terminology used by different people to express colour.[4] Clearly, the extent to which arbitrary and conventional signs predetermine worldview and human ability to grasp external reality is open for debate. It undoubtedly is the case that experience of reality itself has a major impact on the generation of linguistic signs. So, for example, O’Neil observes:

Indians in Canada's Northwest Territories typically have at least 13 terms for different types and conditions of snow, while most non-skiing native Southern Californians use only 2 terms--ice and snow. That does not mean that the English language only has 2 terms. Quite the contrary, there are many more English words that refer to different states of frozen water, such as blizzard, dusting, flurry, frost, hail, hardpack, powder, sleet, slush, and snowflake. The point is that these terms are rarely if ever used by people living in tropical or subtropical regions because they rarely encounter frozen water in any form other than ice cubes. The distinctions between different snow conditions are not relevant to everyday life and children may not even have the words explained to them. However, people in these warmer regions make fine distinctions about other phenomena that are important to them. For instance, coastal Southern Californians often have dozens of surfing related words that would likely be unknown to most Indians in the Northwest Territories or to people living in Britain for that matter.[5]

Certainly, whether we humans are reflecting direct experience of objective reality or our culturally determined values, beliefs and intentions, we are forced to use both language and images, that is, signs or symbolism, in expressing our thoughts to others, whether in spoken or non-oral and non-verbal ways. Clifford Geertz has been the champion of what has been dubbed symbolic anthropology. He saw culture as being something which is intrinsic to the very evolution of the human mind and brain. Following Gilbert Ryle, he argued that human thinking necessarily requires “a constant drawing on and playing with extrinsic symbolic resources.”[6] This accords with Lakoff and Johnson’s point: “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.”[7] So “the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.”[8] Using and manipulating signs or symbols is hard-wired into human nature. Signs and Symbolism: Humans and Animals What makes humans, in contrast to animals, capable of producing culture and transmitting a complex history, is our far greater ability to manipulate signs or symbols, but always as those connected to others. Consequently, to understand culture we need to examine “the ways in which people give meaning to their bodies, their feelings, their selves, their biographies, their situations, and indeed to the wider world in which their lives exist.”[9] This is a dynamic process because “meaning is always emergent, fluid, ambiguous, and contextually bound.”[10] Kottak explains that while other animals learn “only humans have cultural learning, which depends on symbols.”[11] It is the ability of humans to think symbolically and to use signs or symbols which sets us apart from other animals and enables the creation and maintenance of culture. People who share the same culture also share signs or symbols which have a particular and distinctive meaning and value for them. Back in 1949 Leslie White stated:

All culture [civilization] depends upon the symbol. It was the exercise of the symbolic faculty that brought culture into existence and it is the use of symbols that makes the perpetuation of culture possible. Without the symbol there would be no culture, and man would be merely an animal, not a human being.[12]

Some qualification of the above is necessary. The discovery of the genetic code has added impetus to biosemiotics, the understanding that signs and codes are fundamental to all living organisms, plants as well as animals. But culturally learned symbolism is not purely biological. For example, the blinking of my eyes and the internal workings of my heart and other organs, are biologically determined functions and behaviours, even if they too can be said to involve signs and codes. However, the kinds of food I like and eat, the clothes I wear, how I greet people and so on, are clearly culturally learned behaviours which even impact me at a biological level, for example, the sense of revulsion I’m likely feel if invited to eat a barbecued rat, which may well be acceptable food in a country like Malawi. Arguably, White’s statement is incorrect if it implies that all animals have no culture whatsoever. It has in fact been observed that at a very rudimentary level, primates have shown some ability to learn local traditions, use tools and manipulate symbols. Indeed, on this basis Keesing contends that “we can no longer say comfortably that ‘culture’ is the heritage of learned symbolic behaviour that makes humans human.”[13] But there is an enormous difference between humans and the most advanced primates when it comes to use of signs or symbols. In Michelangelo’s Finger, Raymond Tallis makes a very simple but telling observation. While chimps have shown ability to create tools, humans are unique in their ability to point meaningfully. Morton summarises:

Declarative pointing – ‘there’s an eagle!’ – is… one of the fundamental triangulations of our social being. I point; I use my arm and forefinger to describe a line in space; I point at something or someone; but, for it to be meaningful, there has to be another person to observe and comprehend the gesture.”[14]

Clifford Geertz refers to Langer’s famous example concerning canine behaviour. A person comes into a room where there is a dog. The person utters the master’s name – let’s say, ‘James.’ The dog responds by looking for James. For the dog ‘James’ is but a sign, with a one-to-one correspondence. What is lacking is any cultural interpretation of ‘James’, that is, the treatment of ‘James’ as a symbol. As Langer pointed out, if the same is done to a human, the person would respond by asking, “What about James?” Geertz sees this concern with ‘aboutness’ as that which distinguishes humans from animals.[15] We can go further. Humans, in sharp contrast to animals, are story-tellers and our stories, quite simply, are symbol-based narrative.[16] By their very nature, our stories use signs and symbols in almost infinite number of ways, not merely to communicate how to do this or that, but more profoundly to express those things we regard as important and how we view life and reality. Steffen argues “that symbol-based narrative (story) serves as the primal foundation of worldview and social structure.”[17] Alasdair MacIntyre has observed that in all societies “[every] particular view of the virtues is linked to some particular notion of the narrative structure or structures of human life.”[18] So in ancient Greece heroic narratives see each human life as “a story whose shape and form will depend upon what is counted as a harm and danger and upon how success and failure, progress and its opposite, are understood and evaluated.”[19] But by the time of the high medieval period we see a significant change has occurred in how stories are told. Now the tale of a quest or journey has become central. Since Aristotle did not think of charity as a virtue, and saw vices as character defects, deprivations, he would have found the story of the thief on the cross is unintelligible, a story which presupposes “human life as a quest or a journey in which a variety of forms of evil are encountered and overcome.”[20] MacIntyre comments:

“It is because we all live out narratives in our lives and because we understand our own lives in terms of the narratives that we live out that the form of narrative is appropriate for understanding the actions of others. Stories are lived before they are told – except in the case of fiction.”[21]

Indeed, our very concept of being a self necessarily involves narrative, with myself as the subject of a uniquely personal history, which runs from birth to death.[22] Or as Steffen puts it,

“The framing symbols and stories in one’s social environment, for better or for worse, define personality within the broader communal context. They help socialize and individual by enabling expressions of thoughts, feelings, and intentions through culturally-shared symbols and patterns of shared thought.”[23]

Anyway, even those who exaggerate primate use of signs are only reinforcing the essential point. Culture, certainly for humans, and to the very limited extent it may be applicable to animals, involves the ability to use and manipulate signs or symbols and communicate to others how to do likewise. Symbolism and Culture According to the New World Encyclopedia, ‘culture’ refers “to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance.” Or in other words, “to the universal human capacity to classify, codify, and communicate their experiences symbolically.”[24] Geertz is quite correct in seeing that human behaviour is fundamentally symbolic. Many have followed his lead on this and see culture “as the publicly available symbolic forms through which people experience and express meaning.”[25] Swidler identifies various symbolic vehicles of meaning as comprising culture: beliefs, ritual practices, art forms, ceremonies, plus informal cultural practices, e.g. language, gossip, stories and rituals of daily life.[26] So, to understand a culture it is necessary to understand what Geertz named the ‘webs of significance’ which people themselves have spun.[27] For Geertz, culture is to be viewed as clusters of symbols or signs and the way to unpack the inherent meaning in such symbolic systems is through what he calls, following Gilbert Ryle, ‘thick description.’[28] That is, it is not enough to merely observe and describe human social behaviour from an outsider’s perspective, to engage in cultural explanation or interpretative social science.[29] It is vital that those engaged in the behaviours being described provide ‘thick description’, that is, supply their own subjective explanations and meanings. Geertz saw religion as a cultural system and therefore as a system of symbols or signs.[30] To the extent that religion is a purely cultural phenomenon this is indeed true. However, human symbols or signs (including human language) will necessarily prove inadequate, and perhaps even incapable, of dealing with that which transcends culture. The importance of symbolic communication to an understanding of culture is often overlooked in the many attempted definitions of culture. But some definitions do lay stress on this aspect. For example, Clifford Geertz defined culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols.”[31] Such meanings are symbolically transmitted not merely by words (oral or written), but also by any attempt at representation, for example, drawings, photographs, numbers, gestures and ritual. Ancient humans have used objects and pictures to communicate complex ideas. So the Abnaki Indians had a sophisticated symbolic system using sticks stuck in the ground to communicate such things as the route taken, distance travelled, and the number of days spent in traveling.[32] Signs and Symbols Many thinkers make some form of distinction between the terms sign and symbol. But there are two things that make this whole area of thought potentially confusing: (1) the fact these terms are often used as synonyms; and (2) the fact that the two men who gave semiotics as a science its kick-start distinguished between these terms in conflicting ways. These two figures were contemporaries, Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) and Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914). While Saussure treated “sign” and “symbol” as two different concepts, Peirce used “symbol” to refer to a particular type of “sign.” 1. Building on Saussure’s Approach Saussure explained that a sign combines two inseparable components: that which is used to signify a concept, that is, the signifier, and the concept which the sign is glued to, that is, the signified.[33] Saussure spoke of signification to denote the relationship between the signifier and the signified. Saussure emphasised the interdependence of signs and their objects and the following diagrams illustrate how he understood this:

So, for example, the word ‘nose’ is used in the English language to signify the concept of that projection on the face through which one breathes. Saussure’s focus was on how humans use signs and he emphasised that in human societies there is no natural, inherent relationship between the signs we use and what these signs signify. This is all a matter of convention or social agreement. And, of course, such conventions will vary depending upon which social or cultural setting one finds oneself in. A nose may be a nose in all cultures but the signifier will vary enormously from language to language. However, in the animal kingdom there is in fact a natural, genetically fixed relationship between the signifier and the signified. So, honeybees will perform a dance which apparently resembles a figure eight and this dance is a signifier which communicates where there is a source of food (the signified). So, many primates and mammals might urinate in a particular place (signifier) to communicate that this is their space that should not be transgressed (signified).[34] In all such cases there is a mere one-to-one relationship between the signifier (animal behaviour) and the signified (the meaning communicated by the behaviour). This genetically-defined use of signs is “rigidly predetermined, and there is no possibility of new meanings being added.”[35] What Saussure spoke of as a ‘sign’ – a human convention – is very different from the ‘signs’ we encounter in the animal realm – genetically pre-determined and fixed. As can now be appreciated, this is all a matter of semantics, but in order to make a clearer distinction between human and animal behaviour, it has become common, when thinking about culture, for human ‘signs’ to be referred to as symbols. The point here is that symbols, unlike signs, have an arbitrary meaning.[36] Animal signs are ‘closed’, incapable of having new meaning. Human symbols are ‘open’ and highly susceptible to attaining new or different meanings. For this reason, human symbolism is also capable of being esoteric.[37] Given this openness of symbols it is apparent that meaning is not ‘stored’ in symbols. Nor, for that matter, is it ‘stored’ outside our cultures as if it was a free-floating phenomenon. A classic example of this cultural openness is provided by the symbol of the cross. It may symbolise crucifixion. For early Christians it came to possess a special symbolic meaning. But centuries later, for many millions of people the cross has other symbolic connotations, for example, “death and rebirth, self-abnegation, and the victory of spirit over matter. In other places, a cross has come to symbolize colonial oppression and the forced imposition of alien beliefs.”[38] As Beattie observed, many symbols, especially those which sharply differentiate humans from animals[39], have an underlying rationale which explains why they are appropriate in a particular instance. While this rationale may not be obvious and may even be unknown by those who use it, it is potentially discoverable. The rationale may well be apparent as in the case of the symbol for eternity of a serpent biting its tail or of the large-headed, inscrutable owl symbolising wisdom or the use of white to symbolise purity and virtue. It is likely that there is a rationale which lies behind the colours and designs used for the flag which symbolises a nation even if it is not immediately patent. The same goes for a totemic animal of a particular species which symbolises a clan. But another major characteristic of symbols as used by humans is the way they often represent or imply some abstract idea and do not merely refer to an event or concrete entity. Think here of the way different cultures have their own symbols for such abstract concepts as power, group solidarity, and authority, whether familial or political. Further, precisely because symbols represent things that are valued, they may arouse powerful human passions, as in the case of flags and totems.[40] 2. Building on Peirce’s Approach While Saussure’s approach was binary (signifier/signified), Peirce’s approach was triadic. He identified three dimensions: a sign, an object and an interpretant. These days it is quite common for the sign to be referred to as the representamen. Arguably, the major contribution Peirce makes is to stress the importance of interpretation.[41]

It is the interpretant that grasps the significance of the sign or, as it were, ‘translates’ the sign. At a very basic level this is simply the idea “where there’s smoke there’s fire.” But in real life we see a massive difference between animals and humans when it comes to understanding the connection between smoke and fire. Humans might think that fire authorities are conducting controlled back-burning or, if their home borders the forest, assess whether the fire is moving in their direction and, if so, either stay to protect their home or choose to evacuate. Indeed, we can imagine many different possible meanings, intentions and values that people might impute to the phenomenon of fire-occasioning smoke in a forest. Reconsider the earlier diagram used to illustrate Saussure’s understanding of a sign. For Peirce (pronounced ‘purse’) this helped him to distinguish between three different signs.[42]

There are many taxonomies that can be used to differentiate between different kinds of signs. It is the above triad that he regarded as ‘the most fundamental division of signs.’ This has met with widespread concurrence among semioticians.[43] 1. Icon[44] Peirce originally called these signs ‘likenesses’, and on many occasions spoke of an icon being similar to its object.[45] An icon has a ‘topological similarity’ to its object. That is, the relationship between constituent parts which make up the icon resemble the relationship between constituent parts in the object. Often this similarity involves a physical resemblance. Photographs and artistic portraits are obvious examples of icons. But Peirce also saw an algebraic equation as an icon. He recognised that the individual algebraic signs are not icons, but the equation as a whole expresses the relationship between the algebraic quantities which constitute the equation.[46] 2. Index An index ‘indicates.’ That is, by its very nature as a sign it points to or suggests something else. That is, some sensory feature is involved. Something that can be directly seen, heard, smelt or sensed correlates, even if imperfectly, with some other reality. As Peirce explained, “A sundial or a clock indicates the time of day… A rap on the door is an index… Anything which focuses the attention is an index.”[47] According to Peirce, indices, unlike symbols, given the directness of sensory experience, don’t require an interpreter or reader for such signs to communicate their meaning. At first glance this appears to make sense. However, as my reflections above on the smoke-fire relationship indicate, it is only at an extremely basic and highly abstract level that indices don’t require an interpreter. In real life it is doubtful, even in the case of indices, that the meaning of the representamen or sign is actually captured without recourse to interpretation. 3. Symbol Peirce thought of a symbol as an arbitrary sign where the relationship of the signifier to the signified is a matter of convention, that is, what has been agreed upon as their meaning by persons. In the case of the symbolic sign it is conventional usage which determines meaning. Language is a symbolic sign system. All of the characters on my computer keyboard are symbols, whether alphanumeric or not. Other examples include the way different models of cars are represented by distinctive symbols, how Russia is symbolised by the sign of a bear, Christianity by the cross, and Nazis by the swastika. While I am commuting to the city by train, I may well use words in conversation that fit this context, e.g. ‘train’, ‘track’, ‘station’, ‘platform’, ‘guard’, ‘turnstile’, etc. However, precisely because it is conventional usage rather than context which determines the meaning conveyed by symbols, I can use these same words to convey the same meaning when I am in my office or back at home. It follows that symbols will still convey their meaning when dislocated from their context. Also, observe how to speak of my ‘train’ immediately arouses association with many other words, which is typical of how symbols function. Indeed, it is the association with other symbols that especially serves to sharpen the meaning of any particular symbol. Since symbols depend on conventional agreement, it follows that without interpretation they would not serve as signs. Peirce’s symbols require an interpreter or reader, but not so indices and icons. An index requires an object, not so icons. Peirce observed how a line drawn by on paper by a pencil may represent a geometric line, even though it has no existence.[48] Signs, Symbols & Culture While both Saussure and Peirce provide us with a richer understanding of how symbols and signs are used, we have seen that there is potential for terminological confusion. In thinking of how signs and symbols are used in cultural contexts it is preferable to place the emphasis on key conceptual dimensions rather than become over-fussy about what particular terms we use. Still, with this caveat in mind, it is helpful to consider, for example, how Peirce’s icons, indices and symbols differ from culture to culture. For example, what do you think the following icons might refer to?

This is in fact an icon used to distinguish female from male toilet facilities. Ah, but which icon is which? Well, if we were in a Western nation we’d probably assume the RH icon signals a female toilet. But in Saudi Arabia, where these icons derive from, the RH icon signals the male toilet while the LH icon, symbolising a woman in full burqa (with just eyes showing) signals the female toilet. From this point on, I will use the term symbol as my umbrella term for all ‘signs’ and their subsets. For Geertz, the symbol is a relational entity which is composed of three elements: 1. The representamen, the tangible side of the symbol. 2. The object, that which the symbol refers to. 3. The interpretant, the relation between the representamen and the object.[49] It readily becomes clear that the symbol ‘nose’ is indeed open to acquiring new or different meanings. So, we have idioms, which presuppose interrelated and interdependent symbols, such as ‘cut off your nose to spite your face’ which means that in trying to gain an advantage or assert oneself one is actually disadvantaging oneself. No animal is capable of manipulating symbols in such a complex manner. The symbol ‘nose’ is plainly part of a system of symbols and is open to being used in a manner that involves a very different meaning. Indeed, the whole idiom means something quite different from what it would mean if understood literalistically – physically cutting off one’s nose. Even this modest example makes it immediately apparent that human use of symbols is capable of transmitting information and ideas on a massive scale and with immense complexity. It was Saussure who recognised that any particular ‘sign’ is part of a system of ‘signs’ and only means what it does because of its relationship to other ‘signs’ in the system. Sticking with the basic distinction we have been making then let us just replace the word ‘sign’ with ‘symbol’. And do note that I am plugging into a human convention to proceed with this very approach. Anyway, when we use the word ‘nose’ we are immediately associating it with other symbols, for example, the word ‘face’ for the front of my head. Similarly, in understanding the meaning of the symbol ‘up’ we are immediately setting it alongside and against the symbol ‘down.’[50] Roland Barthes, in his book Mythologies (1957), considered such aspects of French culture as wrestling and steak-and-chips. He likens food to a language or code, with each item of food acting as a sign or, as we might now say, a symbol. Further, there are socially agreed-upon rules as to how symbols concerning food should be combined. So, in some cultures, it is deemed improper to combine sweet and savoury items.[51] Following on from our comments above, Barthes himself had observed how what he calls ‘complete signs’, that is, complete symbols, can come to symbolise something altogether different. So, for example, the picture of an eagle symbolises the real bird portrayed. But it might also be used to symbolise the determination and toughness of the American nation. This different meaning is what Barthes calls a mythology. At one level caviar and hamburgers are simply alternative foods we might eat. But they clearly can bear a ‘mythological’ meaning as well. [52] For the headhunting Asmat of New Guinea, three colours were used symbolically as part of a very particular mythology: black symbolising human hair – the head to be hunted; red symbolising blood; white symbolised the ashes of ancestors whose deaths had to be avenged by killing more enemies.[53] In her book Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas provides yet another example of what Barthes would call mythology. She observed how in many cultures, dirt is not merely dirt, but functions as a symbol for matter out of place.[54] The concept of culture is greater than the concept of language and communication, but language is central to culture. Further, every letter, grammatical marking and word is itself a symbol, and we haven’t even begun to consider pronunciation, tone, sentence structure and grammar. Clearly, language is indeed “a complex arrangement of symbols.”[55] The very fact that language must be transmitted and learned makes it clear that this same reality applies to culture itself and thus, all the more sharply, serves to differentiate cultural behaviour from biological behaviour. One of the extraordinary features of language – cultural communication – is that symbols can be used to refer to things which are not visible, to things which lie in the past or ahead in the future or which may not even exist, a phenomenon which specialists refer to as displacement.[56] In conversation with a friend it is not necessary for him to see my car with his own two eyes to know what model it is. It is sufficient for me to tell him that it is a Hyundai i30 hatchback or whatever. So far, our comments have stressed that cultural symbols are conventional, arbitrary and open to attaining new and different meanings. Some qualification is needed here. For the association of the symbol with its referent can become so fixed within a society or culture as to become inseparable. When this happens the symbol ceases to be merely that which represents something. It becomes “a way of predefining that reality, or of conveying a certain attitude toward the reality.”[57] As Popenoe recognises, “A certain symbol may become so familiar to us that we no longer even notice it, or we distort the reality for which it stands.”[58] To illustrate this point Popenoe notes that in a particular culture the word ‘pig’ may become so strongly associated with ideas of filth, ugliness, uncleanness and repulsiveness that it become second nature not see the animal pig as anything other than something that is dirty and repulsive.[59] Charles Kraft recalls how the “culturally conditioned interpretational reflexes” of the Nigerian people group among whom he worked caused them to think that the good shepherd of Psalm 23 was insane. For, in their culture, only young boys and insane men tended sheep. In his book Peace Child, Don Richardson speaks of his immersion in the culture of the Sawi of New Guinea whose symbolic system caused them to admire Judas for his treachery.[60] In a particular culture a particular meaning will be communicated in a particular symbolic manner. In another culture that same basic meaning may well be communicated in a different symbolic manner. So, for example, communicating to someone that they are welcome may be expressed in one culture by kissing, in another by handshakes, in another by rubbing noses, and so on. In every group that shares a common culture we would expect to find shared views as to what constitutes beauty. In one culture it might be expected that female beauty involves the symbolism of slimness. Yet in another culture, plumpness may be integral to communicating this same basic ‘meaning’, female beauty. By contrast, the use of a particular symbol in a particular culture may communicate a very different meaning than the use of that same symbol in another culture. Contributor Ronald Stamper provides a telling example of this need. A manufacturer of confectionary decides to sell boxes of marzipan sweets shaped as animals and toys. These are packaged in attractive gift boxes, tied with a broad ribbon, and with the words “Gift for the Children” clearly displayed on the packaging. BUT those letters G-I-F-T have no meaning to the machinery which process them, nor to the computers which print the labels. For it is simply false to think of computers processing ‘information’. They don’t and can’t. Because, as Stamper recognises, such letters or tokens only ‘inform’ when people impute meanings, intentions and values to them. We have some idea of what those letters would mean to English speakers. But imagine shipping those same labelled packages to a German speaking nation where those very same tokens G-I-F-T mean “poison.” To take another example, if I raise my palm upwards and repetitively move my fingers towards myself then in Australian culture the person towards whom my arm is pointed will understand that I am simply motioning that person to come. However, if I were to use this same form in Pakistan this would be interpreted as an insult, as being the kind of gesture to summon a dog. Then again, take the linguistic form assumed by the saying of "Yes." In many of the cultural settings we are used to "Yes" means, "I will commit myself to doing what I have said 'Yes' to." But in other cultural settings it simply means, "I do not wish to offend you and therefore acknowledge that I listen graciously to what you are saying." The use of our eyes is a classic example of this same point. Think of a person who averts his or her eyes when speaking to you. Depending on your cultural background you might conclude, for example, either that (1) this person is sneaky; or (2) has a low self-image; or (3) is not paying attention of disinterested; or (4) is treating you with politeness and humility. By contrast, if this person fixes their eyes on you when speaking then again, depending again on your cultural background, you might assume, for example, that this symbolises (1) honesty; or (2) self-confidence; or (3) expressing regard for you; or (4) rudeness and aggression. In one culture any expression of anger may be regarded as shameful. If such a person hears the family next door shouting their heads off at each other it might be concluded that they have lost control and their family life is falling apart. But in many cultures conflict-resolution is approached by verbal venting of emotion. In such contexts this would be regarded as an indication of a family working things out. If it was noted that a family member was not expressing how he or she felt, such silence might be interpreted as an indication of radical discontent. As can be seen there are myriad examples of how particular symbols can have widely divergent meanings in different cultures. Indeed, they can even communicate the exact opposite. So, if someone comments to us on the beauty of our child we may well take this as a compliment. But if the same remark was made to many parents from different cultural backgrounds (e.g., many Asian and Middle-Eastern cultures) they may well feel angry and frightened, fearing that the evil eye has been focused on their child. There are some symbolic forms which can only be understand within a particular cultural context and which may not have any meaning outside of that context. Some Latin Americans use a goitre sign, that is, a person makes to cup his throat with the palm of his hand. This symbolises stupidity. An Arab may loop his little fingers together and proceed to pull them apart to symbolise the end of friendship. In many Western countries if the hand is held near face level with the fingers flapping rapidly above the thumb this symbolises that someone is a chatterbox. Similarly, in some Western contexts, placing the back of the hand under one’s chin this may signify 'I've had you up to here!', that is, 'I am fed up with you.' Cultural Symbolism and Cultural Cues There is a set of cultural symbols that are sometimes referred to as “cultural cues.” Actors might look for a cue to help them know when or what to do or say. Similarly, those who are seeking to communicate and relate effectively across cultures will look for cues that will help them to respond appropriately. So, for example, say I am about to enter a house or perhaps a mosque and see many shoes outside the entrance. I am likely to take this as a cue to remove my own shoes before entering. So, this cue helps me to act in a culturally appropriate manner. As Lingenfelter and Mayers explain it: “A cultural cue is a specific signal or sign that people use to communicate the meaning of their behaviour. Each culture has literally thousands of cues that signal a change of context and a corresponding need to follow the rules appropriate to the new context."[61] Reflection on his experiences as an anthropologist on the Micronesian island of Yap, Lingenfelter observes how an invitation to chew betel nut was a cultural cue to initiate conversation, corresponding to offering a cup of coffee in the US.[62] Lingenfelter and Mayers express what many of us have found in our own experience: “A failure to grasp the meaning of such cues results in misunderstandings, confusion, and oftentimes interpersonal conflict."[63] Initially, in Pakistan, when we had guests, we would serve the meal early in the evening, just as we had done in Australia. But we found that once the meal was concluded our guests were immediately asking for ijazat, permission to go – the ending of the meal was a cultural cue that it was alright to leave. So, we learned to allow plenty of time for socialising and conversation before having the meal, which we now would serve later in the evening. Symbols and Cultural Context We earlier noted the importance Geertz placed on ‘thick description.’ Given the integral symbolic nature of culture, it follows that to communicate meaning across cultures it becomes essential for insiders to be able to process such communication with reference to their own system of symbols for understanding such meaning. I recall an American visitor who was taken to a Pakistani village and was invited to address them. He gave a speech in which he tried to communicate things he considered to be important and which he wanted his hearers to understand. Drawing on his own experience, he symbolized this meaning using illustrations from American gridiron football and surfing. As is to be expected all of this flew over the heads of his hearers who had never even see the sea or a gridiron game. Clearly, if the message being communicated across cultures is to be grasped then it is necessary for the relevant insider cultural symbols to be appropriated, especially by insiders themselves. At a rudimentary level, imagine that for you speak French as a second language. Perhaps English is your first language and you are reading say Sartre in French. You are the receiver of the communicated message and in your mind you are finding English words and phrases and constructions which will help you capture the meaning being conveyed by the French words. Perhaps there is a portion of what Sartre has written that you find hard to understand. So you ask an English-speaking French friend to explain it to you or you ask this friend whether your attempted English translation succeeds in capturing the meaning or not. Through such a dynamic process, involving feedback loops, it is possible to negotiate the differing languages, that is, different symbolic systems, and substantially or perhaps completely capture the intended meaning of the communicator. Conclusion By nature, and in contrast to animals, humans are socio-cultural beings whose thoughts, especially when relayed to others, are necessarily expressed through a highly sophisticated and extensive use of symbols, whether these take the forms of language or non-verbal means. An ability to communicate effectively in different cultural settings presupposes some ability to understand how one’s own symbols for communicating meaning may need to be modified or even replaced, depending on how that same meaning would be symbolically communicated in the other culture. However, ultimate success is not dependent on the ability of the communicator to master how this is done in the other culture. Communication is a dynamic, two-way relationship. Given that those on the receiving end of the communication are motivated to understand the meaning being conveyed, then they themselves have a major role to play in finding the symbols that will succeed in capturing that meaning. So, for example, after using highly symbolic parables in his teaching, Jesus would add, “Everyone who has ears to hear, let them hear.” Consequently, if meaning is to be successfully relayed through any culturally contextualised message, then it must especially factor in the need to motivate recipients to play their key role.


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[1] For example, Okrent observes “evidence that deaf people cut off from language, spoken or signed, think in sophisticated ways before they have been exposed to language.”. [2] “Thought and Language,” 136. [3] See Bynon, 469. For Weisberger “language simply provides names or ‘labels’ for pre-existing ‘things’, a view which is automatically and uncritically transmitted with each act of acquisition of speech by a child” (469). [4] See O’Neil, “Language and Thought Processes.” Language and Culture. There is a further note on O’Neil’s webpage concerning a 1976 study which collected colour terms used by 110 different languages around the world. In 2006, a review of this study, noted that most of these languages did not distinguish between green and blue, especially in the case of language groups closer to the equator. It was proposed that intensely sunny environments alters the ability of people to see colour due to a yellowing of the eye lens caused by excessive ultraviolet radiation. [5] “Language and Thought Processes.” [6] Ortner, 787. [7] “Metaphors,” 3. [8] “Metaphors,” 3. [9] “Symbolic interactionism” in ODS, 657. [10] “Symbolic interactionism” in ODS, 658. [11] Anthropology, 63. [12] Cited by Sanderson, 31. [13] “Theories of Culture,” 73. [14] “Michelangelo’s Finger.” [15] Micheelsen & Geertz, 8. [16] Steffen, 477. [17] “Foundational Roles,” 477-94. [18] After Virtue, 174. [19] MacIntyre, 144. [20] After Virtue, 175. [21] After Virtue, 212. [22] After Virtue, 217-8. [23] “Foundational Roles,” 478. Steffen notes George Howard’s reference to the ‘storied nature of all thought.’ Steffen illustrates his own position with reference to his significant involvement with the Ifugao people of the Philippines, 483ff. [24] “Culture” in NWE. [25] Swidler, 273. [26] “Culture in Action,” 273. [27] “Symbol” in ODS, 657. In his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973) Geertz famously said, following Weber, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” [28] Micheelsen & Geertz, 6. [29] Swidler, 273. [30] Micheelsen & Geertz, 2. [31] “Culture and Cognitive Science” in SEP. [32] Weitzman & Gross, 254. [33] Saussure’s views are presented in a posthumous work The Course in General Linguistics, put together from his lectures by his students. For a brief summary of his thought see the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, 579-60. [34] Sanderson, 29. [35] Sanderson, 29. [36] “Art and Society” in AT, 424. [37] “Symbolism is often complicated and esoteric, perhaps understood by only a small segment of the society, such as the elders or members of an elite, educated class.” “Art and Society” in AT, 424. [38] “Art and Society” in AT, 424-5. [39] Other Cultures, 69. Beattie saw as parallel to animal signals the way humans use a red light to signify that it is dangerous or illegal to go ahead, and the way in which “a footprint signifies that Man Friday (or somebody else) has passed this way.” [40] Beattie, 69-71. [41] See Atkin, “Peirce’s Theory of Signs.” [42] The helpful male-female icon, index and symbol were used by Baluyot. [43] Huening; Burks, 673. [44] See Huening. [45] See Burks, 675. [46] Peirce discriminated between three types of icon: image, metaphor and diagram, but it’s beyond the scope of this paper to enter into this degree of precision. If you’ll excuse the pun, I don’t want to lose the wood for the trees. [47] Peirce differentiated between three times of index: tracks, symptoms and designations. [48] Huening. [49] Micheelsen & Geertz, 15. [50] “Semiology, Semiotics” in ODS, 592. [51] “Semiology, Semiotics” in ODS, 592. [52] “Semiology, Semiotics” in ODS, 592. [53] “Art and Society” in AT, 425. [54] “Symbol” in ODS, 657. [55] Sanderson, 30. [56] Sanderson, 30. [57] Popenoe, 84. [58] Sociology, 84. [59] Sociology, 84-5. [60] Christianity in Culture, 133. [61] Ministering Cross-Culturally, 19. [62] Ministering Cross-Culturally, 19. [63] Ministering Cross-Culturally, 19.

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