A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Role of Symbols on Human Behavior

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A Cross-Cultural Comparison of the Role of Symbols on Human Behavior




Culture is a significant part of human existence because it guides the way people interact with others from their culture and those from other cultures. The symbols that exist in the world have different meanings depending on the cultural background that one is from. These differences become obvious when people from various cultures interact. In order to foster a greater understanding and cohesion during such interactions, it is important that people have knowledge of their cultural symbols and those of others. The purpose of this paper was to investigate on the different meanings of cultural symbols among several cultures in the world and how they influence people’s behaviors. It reviewed the results of research studies carried out to establish cross-cultural perceptions of various symbols and how those perceptions influenced their behavior. All the results indicated that there is a distinct difference in the meaning of symbols across cultures in the world. In spite of the differences, it is important that individuals take it upon themselves to learn about other people’s culture symbols.

Keywords: Cultural symbols

A cross-cultural comparison of the role of symbols on human behavior

Man is named as the only being that broadly utilizes symbols as a means of communication (Morrison, 2011). In fact, White (n.d.) states that, “…All human behavior originates in the use of symbols.” According to her, the symbol played an immense role in the transformation of our ape-like ancestors into the current human form. She further asserts that all forms of civilization can be credited to the use of symbols. The existence of symbols did not only lead to the rise of culture, but has continually enabled its perpetuation. Speech has been named to be the most crucial component of symbolic expression without which there would be no forms of social organization. Human behavior is not only dependent upon symbols, but is equated to symbolic behavior as well (White, n.d.).

As a result of the key role played by symbols to humanity, it has become a popular area of research in various disciples such as Sociology, Anthropology, Psychology and Communication among others. In particular, anthropology focuses on what certain symbols mean to people from various cultural backgrounds. Other culture-symbol related studies always attempt to uncover the impacts culturally held beliefs have on various symbols. Morrison (2011) notes that a more recent wave of research work is placing emphasis on what impacts symbols have on cognitive processes of different people. Findings of several studies indicate that the use of symbols is deeply rooted in man’s sub-conscious that they can’t tell that they are using them. In light of the above, this paper seeks to compare how symbols are used among different cultures.

There is a variety of contentious definitions that have been given by various people in their bid to explain what symbols are. The word has its origin from a Greek verb and nou which mean “to throw together” and to “tally” respectively (Morrison, 2011). White (2011) is of the opinion that the meaning of a symbol can neither be obtained nor determined from its physical characteristics.  Instead, she declares that such meanings and determinations come from the people through physical encounter with them. For this reason, she says that a symbol must exist in a physical form or else people would not experience them. However, she is keen to note that the meaning of symbols do not emanate from mere physical encounters of people but most importantly by a “… non-sensory, symbolic means…”   Bertalanffy (as cited in Morrison 2011) attributes three characteristics to symbols. He defines symbols as signs which are both freely formed and representative.  In this case, the term free has been used to mean that the symbols are not as a result of reflexes or any conditioned behavior. Cassier defines a symbol as an outcome of both language and the cultural classification of concepts (Morrison, 2008). Luna and Gupta have also attempted to describe what a symbol is and have stated that, “symbols are a broad category of processes and objects that carry a meaning that is unique to a particular group.”

Chu (n.d.) conducted a study among graphic design students to determine their visual comprehension of symbols. The study’s objectives included an investigation as to whether there existed any difference in how these students perceived and interpreted the meaning of symbols. In addition to that, the study intended to find out how much the participants knew not only about their cultural images, but that of other cultures as well. In order to effectively create, design and deliver intended graphic messages, it is crucial that the cultural differences are taken into consideration. Chu (n.d.) points out that it is for reason that studies to find out how much people from different cultures know about other cultures other than their own so that the education system can be tailored to fill any gaps.

A one hundred and twenty population sample consisted of students from United States and Hong Kong took part in Chu’s research. These students attended the University of Minnesota and Hong Kong Polytechnic respectively. In the study, Chu made use of twenty visual symbols from both the countries in equal proportions. Each 10 set country category consisted of 5 business logos and another 5 national symbols. In addition to the above, a survey was carried out among a 90 undergraduate student sample (Chu, n.d.). The American culture symbols were arrived at as a result of a consultation process with the advisory committee and they were aimed at identifying the top most symbols that people believe are representative of the American culture. The national images for Hong Kong on the other hand were advised by a committee well versed with the culture of Hong Kong (Chu, n.d.). Through content analysis of the highest circulating magazines, the business visual images were arrived at. The magazines were classified as hobbies and entertainment, business, science and technology, general editorial and news.  A booklet and survey questions were then formulated and administered to the participants (Chu, n.d.).

Repeated-measure design analysis was employed to analyze the responses.  The results indicated that there is a distinct difference in how symbols are perceived by people from different cultures (Chu, n.d.). They also indicated that there is a difference between how respondents responded to their cultural symbols and how they reacted towards the cultural symbols of others.  This goes to show that American and Hong Kong graphic design students are different in terms of how they perceive symbols that represent their culture and those that are from another culture (Chu, n.d.).  The results of this study affirmed the hypothesis of the study which was that there exist perceptual differences between the two cultures of visual images.

In their framework, Gupta and Luna (n.d.) give a critical analysis of consumer behavior from a cross-cultural perspective. Peoples’ value systems are influenced by the cultures to which they belong and in this same fashion, the behavior of consumers is influenced. A person’s consumption conduct may be observed by other members of a group and either get imitated or declined (Luna, & Gupta, n.d.). This can then be adopted as the group’s norm and further identified as its culture. Marketers therefore, are faced with a crucial task to translate the symbolic meanings attached certain cultures into the goods and services they are offering. Consumer researchers have primarily focu.............

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