The power of symbols

The power of symbols

What symbols represent and how they evoke emotion

The world is diverse, containing a multitude of races and cultures, each with a unique way of communicating through the use of symbols and meanings. Symbols make up our communication system, which includes both verbal and non-verbal components.

Symbols are objects, characters, or other representations of ideas, concepts, or abstractions. They have helped people communicate and interact with one another for thousands of years. Thus, as a representation, their meaning isn’t instinctive or automatic. The culture’s members have to interpret and over time, re-interpret the symbol.


Symbols generate emotional responses

One thing that is clear about symbols or icons in society is that although they serve the function of representing a concept or idea, they also have the ability to evoke an emotional and psychological response. In fact, the importance or the emotional significance of the concept is what formulates the symbol in the first place.

For example, something as seemingly simple as a national flag does not only represent many meanings, but also has the power to evoke high emotional responses because of the values it represents.

Therefore, across cultures, how a flag is utilized and treated by citizens is of utmost importance since it represents a national consciousness including pride, patriotism, identity and freedom.

Whether symbols are sacred or mundane, they make up a significant part of any cultural fabric. They have the power to transform a concept into a reality, to speak without words and to effect emotional responses from us.

Skull & Crossbones

Symbols elicit internalized norms of behavior

People learn through association. Behavior therefore comes to be associated with symbols that act as cues in the environment.

When symbols are associated with internal states or feelings, their physical presence can evoke the associated states and feelings. For example, when angry people are exposed to a weapon, they are more willing to administer more punishment than those who don’t see a weapon.

In organizational contexts, a symbol that prompts internalized feelings provides a way to understand and act upon those feelings. Thus symbol serves as a link between feeling, interpretation, and action in organizations.


Symbols frame experience

As observers of everyday events, people actively project their frames of reference onto the world and expect what they find to match what they are looking for. When their frames of reference match their circumstances, the framework of our experience is largely invisible to them.

When the circumstances do not match their framework, they are jarred and feel that something is wrong or out of place. And they want to talk about it. For example, money functions as a symbol to allow conversation about abstract notions such as organizational identity, values, priorities, and beliefs.

Symbols help people communicate and share their frames of thought. The frameworks of a particular social group constitute a central element of its culture and require a mode of communication.

Royal Guard

Symbols integrate groups

Symbols integrate multiple, competing, and potentially even conflicting systems of meaning in an organization. They reveal codes that undergird the organization. These codes are patterns of interpretation and understanding that are shared by organizational members. Thus, the symbol in organizational culture is to act as integrator.

For example, the quality of dress of the staff is a symbol of the prestige of the organization. As a cultural system, the organization is created through the integration of socially shared interpretations of symbols.

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