Do you get hungry when you see the golden arches of McDonald’s? Are you proud when you think about your National flag? You might not think these two things are connected, but they are. They are both symbols, and although they have very different meanings, they demonstrate how they affect our perception.
Symbols and Meanings
“A symbol is not just an image, but is like a door into the inner world of the soul.” Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee
Why We Have Symbols
Our brains have to process an enormous amount of data every second of our lives. Symbols help us to make sense of our surroundings. This is because they are a way of instantly communicating. They provide a mental shortcut that triggers recognition, understanding and feeling.
Symbols can take on many different forms. For example, a letter, as with the McDonalds’ example, or a simple cross to denote a religious building. Symbols include signs, gestures, objects, signals and even words. We have symbols because they have the ability to reach across a diverse range of races and cultures.
Not matter what language you speak, everyone knows what the Apple logo, the red poppy or the Swastika stand for. And with the increase in the use of emoji’s, we are going to use symbols even more to give us meaning.
Symbols Are Used For Communication
Our world is rife with symbols. Just think about it. Company logos, traffic signs, the male and female signs on toilet doors, these are all symbols and they all convey different meanings.
But symbols are more than just information. Think about the authority behind a policeman’s badge. The instruction your brain receives when it sees a Stop Sign. The colour red, the colour green. A gold ring on your third finger. A Nazi Swastika. Symbols can have emotional meanings as well as being informative.
Symbols Have Emotional Meanings
Symbols represent ideologies such as religion and political concepts. As such, they are intrinsically linked with our emotions. In the US, the national flag is a revered symbol to be respected and honoured. In the UK, we don’t place so much importance on our flag. So you could argue that symbols have different meanings to whoever is reacting to it.
For example, to many Germans, the Nazi Swastika was a symbol of racial purity and German power. To the Jewish population, it instilled fear. Yet, some groups are now adopting this symbol to front their cultural agendas.
It is the same with religious symbols. The cross is sacred to Christians. However, a burning cross at night is not religious at all. Therefore, each symbol is loaded with meaning, dependant on the person viewing it. The person will associate that particular symbol with a certain feeling or emotion.
Symbols Unite Us As Groups
But symbols can also unite us into groups. The symbol will then serve as a link for members to express their identity, all without saying a word. The symbols we wear on our lapels, our uniforms or our flags reveal a common way of thinking. We instantly align ourselves by adopting certain symbols. These symbols connect us in a way that words never can.
So, in this context, the meanings behind the symbols we use are to show our identity within a certain group. By adopting one symbol over another, we are literally pinning our character to a flag for all to see. We are saying that we identify with others who adopt this symbol.
Why Are Symbols Powerful?
You only have to look at the world of sports to appreciate the power of symbols. Take Roger Federer. To many people, Roger is the epitome of someone at the very top of their craft. It’s not surprising then that sports brands fight to the death to sponsor him. Nike had that contract for years.
Now just think about that single Nike tick. What it represents to people. When you go to a sports shop and you have to choose between two pairs of trainers, you see the Nike pair with a tick. In your subconscious mind, that is no ordinary tick. That tick represents Roger Federer. His class, his wins, and his triumphs in the face of defeat.
It is a symbol loaded with meaning. That tick is a sign of a true sportsman, on and off the court. When you reach for the Nike trainers, for an instant, you are in that special Federer club. You are luxuriating in his success. But it’s just a tick, remember?
So, symbols instantly bring up a certain feeling or image or association. As such, they are often used in the media or for propaganda. Symbols have the power to unite or divide us.
Many of us added a French flag filter to our social media profile picture after the shootings in a Paris nightclub. Taiwanese students used sunflowers to protest against a secret controversial deal with China. Protests are banned in Thailand. However, students have begun using the three-fingered salute seen in the Hunger Games as a form of silent protest.
Even political parties adopt symbols. There is the red rose for Labour, a flying dove for the Libdems, the pound sign for UKIP. This is so that people who cannot read or write can easily vote for their party.
Symbols are everywhere. We cannot avoid them.
Final Thoughts on Symbols and Meanings
There’s no doubt of the power of symbols and what their meanings represent. They have an instant effect on us. We need to understand this. Then we can step back before we react and think about symbols and how their meanings really affect us.
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