Symbols play an important role in human communication and culture. A symbol is something that represents, stands for, or suggests an idea, visual image, belief, action or material entity. Symbols take the form of words, sounds, gestures or visual images and are used to convey ideas and beliefs.
While some symbols have near universal meanings, others can have very different meanings across cultures. The same symbol can represent something positive in one culture but be deeply offensive in another. Understanding how the meaning of symbols can change across cultures is an important part of cultural awareness.
Reasons symbols can have different meanings
There are several key reasons why the same symbol can have very different meanings and connotations across cultures:
- History and cultural context – A symbol gains its meaning from the culture and historical context in which it developed. The history and experiences of different cultures changes the meaning of symbols.
- Interpretation and use – Cultures may interpret and use the same symbols differently based on their values, customs, beliefs, ideas and experiences.
- Translation – Literal translations of symbols from one language to another may not convey the same meaning across cultures.
- Intent and perception – The intended meaning of a symbol may be different than what it is perceived to mean by those from other cultural backgrounds.
- Adoption and evolution – When cultures adopt symbols from other cultures, the meaning can change or evolve over time to fit the new culture.
Understanding the cultural history and context in which symbols develop is key to understanding their different meanings. Symbols that are deeply meaningful or auspicious in one culture may be odd or vulgar in another.
Examples of symbols with different meanings
Here are some examples of common symbols that can have quite different meanings across cultures:
In many Western cultures, a thumbs up gesture is a sign of approval or agreement. However, in parts of West Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia, the thumbs up gesture can be rude or offensive.
The swastika symbol was used for thousands of years by ancient cultures around the world as a symbol of life, sun, power, strength and good luck. However, in many Western countries, the swastika is associated solely with the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime during World War II. Displaying the swastika is now considered hate speech in many parts of Europe.
Simple number gestures using fingers can mean different numbers in different cultures. For example, the “two finger” sign in Western countries means the number two. However, in Japan this sign means the number five. Similarly, the thumbs up sign for one in Western cultures means five in Japan and six in Thailand.
Colors often have different symbolic meanings across cultures. For example, white represents purity, innocence and weddings in Western cultures but symbolizes death and mourning in some Eastern cultures. Red symbolizes good luck and prosperity in China but danger and caution in many other cultures.
Simple hand signs and gestures can mean very different things across cultures. For example, the “OK” finger gesture commonly used in the US is considered very offensive in countries like Germany, Russia and Brazil.
Food items can have very different cultural symbolism. For example, beef symbolizes different things in Hindu and Western cultures. Bread and salt have ritual symbolic meaning in Eastern European cultures.
Clothing often has various cultural meanings and symbolism. For example, the color white is associated with weddings in the West vs. death in East Asia. Baring one’s head is a sign of respect in Western culture while baring one’s feet is very offensive in Islamic cultures.
Some icons and mythical creatures have different symbolism across cultures. For example, dragons represent strength, wisdom and good fortune in Chinese culture vs. evil and danger in some Western stories. Sphinxes were considered guardians in Ancient Egypt but can symbolize mystery in Western culture.
Ways to avoid misunderstandings with symbols
When interacting with other cultures, being aware of potential differences in symbolic meaning can help avoid unintended misunderstandings or giving offense. Some tips include:
- Research the historical and cultural meaning of symbols when visiting other cultures
- Use great caution when adopting symbols from cultures other than your own
- Be very careful using symbols prominently associated with terrible histories, like the Nazi swastika
- Do not assume gestures and hand signs mean the same thing everywhere
- Be sensitive with colors, clothing styles, imagery related to cultural or religious traditions
- When in doubt, ask native members of the culture about the meaning of symbols
- Watch your use of symbols cautiously when interacting with international audiences
Being open-minded, culturally aware and willing to consider different viewpoints can help promote effective intercultural communication and avoid conflict. Exploring how and why the same symbols can represent very different things across cultures creates valuable learning opportunities.
In summary, the meaning of symbols can often be very different across cultures. Symbols gain their meaning from cultural history, context, values and experiences. What may be considered positive in one culture can be very negative or offensive in another. Being aware of these potential differences, approaching symbols carefully with cultural sensitivity and gaining local understanding are keys to avoiding conflict and misunderstanding.
With some symbols like the swastika, it is best to avoid association or use when interacting with cultures that find them deeply offensive, even if the intent or history is different elsewhere. An open and respectful attitude to learning about why various cultures see symbols differently creates greater intercultural awareness and effective communication.