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» Better communication?
» Sending Messages  
» Perception  
» Signs and more signs
» Codes  
» Redundancy  


Are signs real?

Symbol, icon, index

Signs connect to their referent in different ways:

1. Symbol
 -- abstract, a person from another culture can't guess the meaning from looking at it. They are understood by "convention", in other words you have to learn what it represents.
2. Icon
 -- looks like the object or concept the sign refers to.
3. Index
 -- is produced by, or a piece of, the object or concept referred to.

Thus, traffic lights are primarily symbolic. To make sure you come to a stop the traffic light has a high level of redundancy so that if you miss one cue you'll notice another one -- it uses color coding (red always means stop), sequencing (the red light is always on top), and repetition: placing more than one light at an intersection.

It works because its meaning is widely agreed upon. Imagine if you had to figure out the rules for crossing each intersection when trying to drive at rush hour! The more arbitrary and abstract a symbol is, the more the group using that sign needs to agree on its sense and its referent (convention).

The icons on your computer, are actually, well, ICONS: They resemble what is being signified (referent). Most software buttons have a drawing that suggests the key's function--a palette for choosing a color, a house for your home page, a tilted I for Italics. Notice that Microsoft often uses signs which reference the "real world" objects their virtual reality has displaced: filecabinets and folders, wall clocks, pens, envelopes and mailboxes.

Non-computer examples of icons: a painted portrait, a miniature replica, the S curve on a highway warning sign.

Indexical signs have a direct connection with an object, or are produced by the object it represents, Smoke indexes fire. A hyperlink indexes a webpage. A runner leaping a hurdle indexes a race. A crumpled fender left at the side of the road indexes an accident, a piece of sample merchandise in a store window indexes the stock inside, a working weathervane, a footprint. refer to wind direction and feet-the things that directed or formed them.

Because an indexical sign is, by definition, a piece of something or a product of something, the sign is therefore "constrained" by the specific nature of its referent.

Connection to culture and intercultural communication:
  Culture is a (lose, complex) system of shared conventions (for doing, for thinking, for relating...). Because convention requires a lot of agreement and shared experience (no one needs to explain in detail, they just KNOW something), people who are not familiar with that culture will make errors of interpretation, they will not notice some signs, will miss the nuanced layers of reference and significance in others, or will respond to signs as their own culture has taught them to do.

<------------ convention increases
constraint (motivation) increases-------------->

Analog, digital

Signs may be analog or digital, a term we most often use to contrast two kinds of clocks.

analogue clockfaceAnalog:
  a continuum. Analog signs: hands on a clockface, the metaphor "life is a river", a painting. performance of a song, your presentation-of-self as "student".

digital clockface

  divides reality into discrete units. All systems of classification are digital-they put messy reality into neat(er) boxes. Digital signs: a calendar. Letters and numerals. Sport scores. The stripe down the center of the road. Names for meals (e.g. breakfast).

Some signs are both. A road map, for example, divides terrain into digital signs: a square represents a school, green shows public park land, a red line represents an major street, which may have a number to identify it as different from all other streets.

However, it is also analog in that it represents the terrain as a continuum-for example, the blue line representing a stream runs across the map without being chopped up into measurable units (though the mileage key allows the user to do so).

Connection to culture and intercultural communication:

One might define culture as the process of dividing up our analog existence life into digital forms so that we can better control and understand our lives. Thus, for example, learning (a continuum, albeit not a smooth one) is broken up into syllabi and grades and classes and disciplines. Growing up is divided into infancy, toddler, preschool, elementary age, prepubescence, puberty, teenagehood, young adulthood.

Denotative v. connotative

  a sign's (more) literal meaning

  a sign's cultural associations

Example: the drawing of a bull DENOTES a particular type of animal but in our society connotes a rising stock market or good economic times.

Connection to culture and intercultural communication:

Shared culture means many shared connotations. These will shift over time, and from subculture to subculture. Example: the words "gay" and "queer". In cross-cultural communication, it is fairly easy to guess the denotative meanings of words/signs in a foreign culture ("Baum" or "l'arbre" = tree. A walking figure means it's ok to cross the street. ). However, connotative meanings may elude outsiders for a long time because they are embedded in experiences, and cannot easily be looked up in a dictionary. If they are below the iceberg's waterline, local people may not be able to explain them to you. For example, we read the signs that someone is of a different social class than we are, but may not be able to articulate to a stranger what signs we are picking up (small differences in pronunciation or musical taste, for example).

Culture turns connotations of a sign into something that we think of as "real". Skirts connote female gender, however we may come to think that is is "natural" that women wear skirts. It is "common sense" that a Master's Degree gives its holder middle class status. Flag burning may be considered treason. We cry when an object given to us by a beloved person gets stolen or broken. These symbols become real to us and lose their "created" status.

An intercultural interaction, therefore, is uncomfortable or exciting because it does the opposite: it denaturalizes, it exposes the conotations of a sign as something that is a convention, not ultimate reality.

« What is a sign?    Codes »    

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