Symbols: Beware of their Emotional Effects!

Life is full of symbolism. We employ symbols to display, communicate, inspire, or a combination thereof. Symbols exist in various forms: gestures, objects, buildings, words, styles, or even a song or document. Symbols must project a clear idea or image in order to be effective. On the other hand, some symbols are supposed to convey deep meanings and arouse high emotions.

We employ the body effectively for symbols lasting for a short moment, such as: shaking hands, saluting, waving, blowing a kiss, and showing the middle finger. The simple meanings of these gestures are obvious to the other side. Furthermore, we use facial expression or body movement to convey joy and sadness, approval and disgust, too. Some people are adept at using body language to communicate or to attract the opposite sex. All body gestures last for only a short time. For sustaining emotional effects, objects come into play.

Many objects and buildings are designed as symbols such as: the flag/anthem/constitution of a country, national and religious monuments, holy scriptures and other religious objects, the Statue of Liberty, the little red book of Mao’s quotations, the Apple business logo, etc.

Object symbols convey a deeper meaning subject to interpretation. That’s why they produce different emotional effects on different individuals. In any case, object symbols are supposed to project a positive image intended by the designer.

Very often, the image projected by a symbol falls short of the substance. Let me illustrate below:

Every person going to a job interview likes to wear proper business attires to give the impression of professionalism. It’s up to the interviewer to distinguish between the good, the average and the bad.

Politicians like to pin a small flag on their suit lapel. That does not mean that they are more patriotic. Neither does it mean they will do things for the national interest after being elected.

When you visit an investment company, you will be impressed by the building, the furniture, the friendly staff, and the statistics shown in the brochure about their performance. All these are designed to inspire your trust and confidence. You must ask the substantive question: How much do I get for my money?

Firepower like aircraft carriers, jet fighters, tanks, and cannons produce a sense of awe. But wars are fought by people and won by people. When being defeated, the soldiers will abandon their weapons and run. The Vietnam War is a case in point.

During the height of the Cultural Revolution, millions of Chinese youths were seen brandishing the little red book of Mao’s quotations as a symbol of solidarity and loyalty. They didn’t get anywhere except causing chaos and disruptions. China rises to be an economic powerhouse only after they abandoned the communist production system.

So my point is: Don’t get carried away by symbolism. Most symbols are fake at best and deceptive at worst.

(January 2012)

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