How Referential and Expressive Symbols Relate to Culture

The shaken fist, combined with the guttural growl goes back to the dawn of mankind as the universal expressive symbol of rage that is externalized and directed at a specific target. The little yellow/orange folder with the curved lines and dot is one of the latest referential symbols known to man: the symbol for the Really Simple Syndication” or RSS feed, or a bit of code that provides a quick link to a frequently updated site.

Culture is either defined as the best of thought, the humanities, or the arts; or as shared values, behaviors, and beliefs of a group; or as the norms, values and behaviors of a nation.

The most basic expressive symbols are truly individual behaviors. They are used to express emotions, such as rage, when the individual does not have any symbolic representations, or words, for those emotions. The “universal” symbol for choking is not something that is taught or learned, it is an autonomic and natural gesture when a person is choking and cannot speak. Amazingly, babies of a certain age, who are having their photo taken, will automatically form a universal baby sign language symbol for “camera” with their hands. The repetitive action of a person with mental illness or brain damage is expressing something for which the individual has no words.

Expressive symbolism can be as simple as throwing an object, or as complex as the animated logo for a film production company. The artist may include expressive symbols for political, social and cultural concepts in their paintings, films, and writings.

But culture is also the source of referential symbolism, where the symbol refers to something. Sometimes symbols, such as letters, are not related to anything, but they are cultural symbols that must be learned in a setting where there is agreement about the meaning, sound, and way that each letter is formed.

In the original context, the “cultural” part of cultural symbols such as letters, involves achieving excellence in learning how to reproduce the letters, then use them to represent words, then use words to express facts, beliefs, or thoughts, then to achieve ultimate excellence in writing.

In later contexts, the “cultural” part of cultural symbols, whether expressive or referential, involves using symbols to express individual, group, social, or national values, norms, and ideals.

In the latest contexts, the “cultural” part of cultural expressive symbols combines art, technology, and meaning to represent everything from where the restrooms are to where to find a quick dictionary reference while on line. Expressive symbols are being used to gain or reject acceptance of ideologies, attitudes, and opinions. Symbols that used to evoke reverence and support are now being used in ways that cause them to represent ideologies that are only acceptable to small segments of society.

In other current contexts, cultural expressive symbols are being used for social engineering to enhance commercial, government, and political goals. The “recycling” logo reminds and motivates people to think about caring for the environment by using recycling containers to dispose of garbage, for example.

In summary, the frameworks for understanding culture and culture’s related expressive symbols are evolving along with the culture, itself.