“Get The Picture?” : Historicizing How We Follow the Signs for the Sake of Survival and Interpersonal Communication

Did you know that most of subtle of body cues could be the difference between whether you live or die in an encounter with a cougar in the woods? Not exactly the most obvious survival tidbit for trekking the rugged terrain, but necessary when considering you can’t just talk your way out of a duel with a 130-pound feline. Why? Because it’s not a human, meaning it won’t understand the sounds you utter because it’s not a member of “the symbolic species.” And while plenty of blog posts have been about reading the signs of animalistic non-human body language, we do not wholeheartedly understand them either. In fact, because of distinctive cultural meaning systems, it seems we, humans, don’t fully understand one another.

As we know, miscommunication and bad wiring with cultural standards lie at the heart of most domestic and international conflicts (thank goodness for United Nations). For example, translation from spoken and written language to another is not always as smooth and precise as one would hope in multicultural dialogue. Yet, verbal and nonverbal communication gets misconstrued even amongst those of the same national origin and native tongue.

I remember having a conversation with my relatives about their upbringing and what their parents taught them about interacting with police officers. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown tragedies – and having a general understanding of the historical strain between law enforcement and the Black community – I predicted that this discussion would have undertones of mistrust for the police. And I was correct. My female cousins narrated lessons from their elders telling them to consult a neighbor or trusted member of the community, not a police officer, if you needed help. More striking was the talk I received from my father, who said “Don’t catch an attitude with police” and “Don’t make any sudden movements in your car if you get pulled over,” insinuating that the wrong move – the wrong symbol delivery – could render guns being drawn. Message received.

In Kate Wong’s text, “The Morning of the Modern Mind: Symbolic Culture,” she examines the rise of material symbols as a means to “foster good relationship with others as a hedge against hard times.” And while this holds true in gift-giving scenarios, general interpersonal relationships are strained and dependent on the physical and mental exchange of symbols. A conjecture of signs could equate to triggering a defense mechanism: hazy air plus the smell of smoke and a rush of heat could lead one to suspect that a fire is near. In such a case, symbolism is a vital means of survival. But what about socially constructed and skewed symbols? A person is walking at night approximately 50 feet behind you with a dark hoodie and their hands in their pockets – does your instinct activate defensive tendencies as a means of survival or are you merely jumping to hasty conclusions about this person? That takes a lengthy deblackboxing of interacting systems.

This reflection on social cues and body language evoked thoughts about the creation of symbols for survival and commemoration within African and African American culture. A method of quilting, using geometric Afrocentric shapes and symbols, was practiced as a means of communicating when it was safe for slaves to escape to freedom. The Adinkra symbolic system originated in the Ivory Coast, thanks to the Gyaman kingdom. After being defeated by the Asantes, the king of Gyaman, Nana kofi Adinkra, wore a cloth adorned with symbols and patterns to express the sorrow of his loss. These Gyaman signs were adopted by the Asante people and later sketched on clothes, typically worn during at funerals to bid farewell to deceased loved ones. (Adinkra translates to goodbye or farewell in Twi, the dialect of the Akan ethnic group to which Asante people belong). [1]

Later in the text, Wong delves into the history of material culture and its primitive purpose as vessels for peace offerings. In the social media realm, it seems that likes and retweets/reblogs are the new measures for keeping that interpersonal peace. Users exchange symbols of approval to others within their digital reach. Similarly, with all symbols of communication, the omission or neglect of sending a signal or symbol – silence or virtual silence, if you will – is a sign in itself, typically of disrespect or disapproval. (See: the cold shoulder, the silent treatment in intimate relationships).

Before I wrap up this reflection, I think it’s important to note the universality of a particularly new craze in symbolic systems: the emoji.

Colin Renfrew explained it perfectly: “We live in a world which we have made: it is a world of artefacts, to the extent that is almost true to say that the world in which most of us live today is an artifact, albeit a complex one.”

Merging this pictorial meaning system with alphanumeric characters is creating new and breaking old bonds for written communication. I love using emojis because they add a creative layer to mundane language. While the emoji character options are finite, their incorporation into written dialogue adds a layer of animation and tone that gets misconstrued with text only.*


*Professor Tinkcom mentioned a book by Bing Xu, titled Book from the ground: from point to point, composed mostly of pictograms, with few textual symbols. I certainly plan on investigating this book, given my almost excessive use of emojis, to see if I can successfully get through it without blowing my mind each time. I recommend you all check it out, too.

[1] Teeteh, Valentina A. “Adinkra – Cultural Symbols of the Asante People.” St. Lawrence

University. stlawu.edu. Web. 27 January 2015.