Jun 24, 2015

The Power of Symbols – What Do They Mean to You?


An interesting thing happens inside our minds when it comes to giving meaning to symbols. In my communication training that I present titled Stealth Communication, I illustrate this by holding up only my thumb on my right hand and asking, “Does this mean anything to you?” Most people will say “No”. I then raise my index finger on my right hand, my ring finger, and my little finger, each in succession and asking the same question, “Does this mean anything to you?” The replies to each finger is “No”. I then extend my middle finger. Do I get a reaction? For sure! And, my question is “Why?” Why does the middle finger mean something so offensive that it elicits reactions of anger and disgust? The reason is that people have given the middle finger that meaning. This dates back centuries and, according to Wikipedia, “The middle finger gesture was used in Ancient times as a symbol of sexual intercourse, in a manner meant to degrade, intimidate and threaten the individual receiving the gesture. It also represented the phallus, with the fingers next to the middle finger representing testicles; from its close association, the gesture may have assumed apotropaic potency. In the 1st-century Mediterranean world, extending the finger was one of many methods used to divert the ever-present threat of the evil eye.” So, not only can you make people anger with your middle finger, you can ward off the “evil eye”!

Hook_em_Edward_LewellenHere in Dallas/Fort Worth, a prominent symbol is extending index finger and little finger as a show of support for the Texas Longhorns from the University of Texas. In other parts of the world, this sign means an insult, the sign of the Devil, a curse, ward off evil spirits, the newly rich, arrogant and poorly educated in Russia.

Another infamous symbol is the Swatstika. We associate Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime with it. People in Far Eastern religions believe this symbol represents the originating of the universe with the four swirling arms representing the four directions of the manifest universe. Swastika_German Swastika_Hindu

My point is that symbols hold meaning to each person based on their beliefs, learnings, background and experiences. And, the meaning of symbols can change over time and in different contexts. Some people may choose to give a very deep, emotional meaning to a symbol because of the place it holds in the history of their country or in their life. Other people choose to give a very different deep, emotional meaning to the same symbol because of the place it holds in the history of their country or their life.

Since symbols only hold the meaning and the power we assign them, this means that we can choose what meaning we want to give them. Like most things; objects, symbols, and words can be used positively or negatively. And, we can choose to let the previously held power of a symbol diminish in favor of peace within ourselves and with others. So, how will you respond the next time someone gives you the “one-finger salute”? Remember, you get to choose the meaning it has for you!

Dr. Edward Lewellen is a Master Executive Coach, leadership and sales expert, and keynote speaker for some of the largest global organizations.
Author of The 90-Second Mind Manager