© Article translated from the book “Negoziazione interculturale, comunicazione oltre le barriere culturali” (Intercultural Negotiation: Communication Beyond Cultural Barriers) copyright Dr. Daniele Trevisani Intercultural Negotiation Training and Coaching, published with the author’s permission. The Book’s rights are on sale and are available for any Publisher wishing to consider it for publication in English and other languages except for Italian and Arab whose rights are already sold and published. If you are interested in publishing the book in English, or any other language, or seek Intercultural Negotiation Training, Coaching, Mentoring and Consulting, please feel free to contact the author from the webstite www.danieletrevisani.com
The Symbolic Communication Meanings
Can we assert that a manager with long hair, earrings and colorful clothes is considered the same as a manager in a dark suit and tie, in the eyes of a European bourgeois traditionalist client? And again, having a picture of Che Guevara on the wall, or a photograph of the Pope, what does it convey to those present? We can know practically nothing about the real history of the subjects, except the symbols we see and from which we derive possible meanings and associations.
Symbolic communication concerns the meanings that people associate or perceive from particular “signs” that they notice in the interlocutor and in his or her communicative space. By communicative space we mean here any area of elements that is attributed to the subject’s “system”, to its possible expressions, whether aware or not, such as his car, or the background of his PC, and any other sign from which we derive inferences, meanings, interpretations.
From the semiotic point of view, every element from which a subject draws meanings becomes a “sign”, whether the bearer is aware of it or not. Look, clothing and accessories are among the most incisive factors in building a personal image. Differences or similarities in clothing make a subject fall within the professional ingroups (“one like us”, the “equals”) or outgroups (“one different from us”), whatever represents “we” for the subject .
Among the primary elements of symbolic communication we find clothing, hair and hairstyle, jewelry, watches, professional tools (telephones, laptops and other computer tools), but also the marks on the body (cuts, abrasions, tattoos) , the condition of the skin (care, presence of beard and its condition, make-up, body and face hair, skin color, tan, sweat). In a system of enlarged signification, the symbols that express the brands used, the type of car (work, city, off-road, sports, luxury), the designer labels, and even the furniture of the offices, the paintings hanging on the walls, furniture.
Chronemic behaviors (the following of actions over time) are also broadened signals, such as the frequency we notice in changing clothes, punctuality, tranquility or nervousness in the way of driving, the times a person takes in eating or drinking (slow and calm vs. fast and voracious). Even the time it takes a person to answer a question can be significant: slow or too meditated answers can be interpreted as insincere in Western cultures, or on the contrary wise and thoughtful in “high context” cultures such as Eastern ones. It can be said that in the field of intercultural communication nothing escapes the observation of the interlocutor, and every “sign” contributes to its classification and evaluation.
The use of ties, dark tailored suits, high-quality shoes in shiny leather, is one of the emblems of the Western manager and represents one of the cornerstones of “image sales”. The problem at an intercultural level is given by the perception of others within the systems of personal signification. Some managers, insurance salesmen, and corporate executives in career, thinking of “loading” on the front of professionalism, are taken by the temptation to hyper-flaunt brands, luxurious shoes, designer and eye-catching ties, precious watches, unknowingly creating a greater distance than it would be desirable.
The same problem of “status anxiety” applies to the ostentation of excessively flashy cars or to any other accessory that communicates excessive superiority and produces distance. In terms of intercultural impression management (strategic image management), some behaviors – eg: arriving by helicopter – can be implemented voluntarily, to create a status barrier and create feelings of inferiority.
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