On Symbolic Communication amidst Romance

Communication is at the core of human relationships and symbolism is at the core of communication. However, while symbolism is crucial to communicating abstract concepts, symbolic communication is more likely than ‘literal’ communication that is free of symbolism to result in misunderstanding. The significance of symbolism as a factor in miscommunication in relationships cannot be understated. In exploring this I’ll firstly clarify some of the terms I’ll be using, then regard some of the overall contexts that affect the interpretation of symbols. Then, I’ll explore a few specific symbols that feature prominently in the discourse of our romantic relationships, differing interpretations that exist, and how these can cause problems. If all goes well, I’ll wind up with some bold and useful insights.

Is it too much to suggest that symbolism is at the core of communication? A concept is a symbol if its meaning is “more than it is”: a ‘S’ with a ‘|’ through it is more than it is: it, ‘$’ can be used to symbolise money. In this sense, every spoken word is a symbol as it is more than a mere sound wave, as each spoken word has an associated concept which it symbolises. Except in the case of onomatopoeia, the association is generally arbitrary. For the purposes of this essay I’m more concerned with the inner layers of symbolism: not the layer at which “love” is associated with love, but the layer at which love is associated with other abstractions.

As I define it, “miscommunication” has happened if the message’s recipient interpreted the message to mean something different to what the speaker had intended. My friend who is in the unfortunate habit of using Cockney slang occasionally drives me places in his “Yo-yo”, or car (after Yo-yo Ma). If he uses the phrases when speaking to me, communication takes place. If I were to use the same phrase to a more sensible person, they would be confused [1]. Miscommunication is the term I would apply to that. As people associate different ideas with the same symbols, or fail to make presumed associations, the use of symbols often results in miscommunication.

The interpretation of symbols is a hell of a business, influenced by a great number of factors. One of these is culture: the offensiveness of a given hand signal, for example, is culturally-specific. But for my purposes I’m going to pick up a few factors that I think are particularly relevant to the sorts of communication I plan to discuss.

Factors influencing Symbol Potency

One of these factors is novelty: the extent to which the symbol has been deployed previously. This is because the “firstness” of a symbol is itself symbolic, it represents a step in to the new. For example, a typical couple’s first fornication is more packed with symbolism than the 8:58 to Southern Cross is with commuters; the seventeenth slightly less so. Even more so if it isn’t just their first act of intercourse together, but the first act of intercourse at all. To continue the simile, to add “losing virginity” to “couple’s first making love” would require the conductor to ask everyone to stand up and make their way to the back of the symbolism train to allow somebody with a wheelchair to come on. The first use of a symbol, whether the first for a particular situation or the first use at all, conveys more than subsequent deployments.

Secondly, the rarity of the symbolic gesture is something to take in to account. I feel safe saying that sex with the promiscuous is less symbolically potent than sex with the chaste. If you have a friend who is constantly telling you how much they “love” their newest interest, you’ll roll your eyes, but your eyes might stand out on stalks if your friend, who has never previously used such a word, draws it from their vocabulary. Miscommunication is thus likely to result if somebody who does a lot of kissing hooks up with somebody who does very little: the relative frequency of the act in each of their lives affects their perception of what it means to the other person involved. The use of rarely-used symbols conveys more than the use of frequently-used symbols.

A third factor that has struck me is the readiness of the individual to use a given symbol. Verily, some people find it harder than others to communicate certain things, so the mere act of attesting to such a thing reveals greater commitment on their part than it would have in others. For example, if a bashful recluse tells me that my sideburns make her knees weak, it is more noteworthy than if a gregarious extrovert had said the same. The recluse has overcome more internal resistance to share her facial hair appreciation, and if I can intuit this, I can attribute more significance to the revelation. In a similar vein, the expression of emotions by an individual who is less confident in expressing such things has added symbolism. The more difficult it is for an individual to use a symbol, the more significant such usage is.

All-in-all, symbols are the added layers of meaning: the connotations of a concept brought to mind by either a word or a gesture. The magnitude and direction of these symbols is, we’ve already seen, influenced by the novelty of that symbol, the rarity of its use, and the readiness of an individual to use certain symbols. We can see how this plays out in symbolic contexts, symbolic words, and symbolic acts.

A Symbolic Context: Home

Home is a very powerful context. Individuals will associate their own home, or the home of others with a lot of different things: security, family, health. These associations are not at all arbitrary. Rather, they are the result of the brain being pounded with certain experiences while one is home. People often feel secure when they are home. Thus they come to associate home with security. And, speaking of pounding, people often are home (or at least, in a home) when they are having sex, so the context takes on symbolism. Consider the phrase “they went home together”, an effectively unambiguous suggestion as to what their night was spent doing. Note too the symbolic significance of, at the end of a date, crossing somebody’s threshold to have tea. WE ALL KNOW WHAT THAT MEANS.

In the context of romantic relationships, the symbolism of home is qualified by a number of things: company, time of day, age. Asking a group of people (cf. an individual) to one’s home symbolises something else (or less). Asking somebody home at night-time has a symbolic quality that asking somebody to your place just after breakfast lacks. And fourteen year olds, who tend to lack a ‘third place’, can ask their crushes home without anybody necessarily inferring that coitus might ensue.

Two episodes bring this illustration to mind, and serve as warnings for the home viewer. Now is probably a good time to introduce my hapless protagonist, “Alex”, so called because, although I am listening to Sarah Vaughan at the moment, I wanted a gender-neutral name, and “Moel” is neither a real name nor a useful suggestion.

Let’s imagine Alex is out on a second date with their partner, Shannon. It’s getting towards early evening and people are hungry. They’re checking Foursquare out for ideas of where to eat, when Alex suggests they could just go back to his/her place, which is well-stocked with those staples of today’s successful paramour, tofu and zucchini. Shannon freezes up. It’s all moving too fast. They part awkwardly. While Alex may have intended the suggestion literally – after all, tofu and zucchini are both delicious, cheap and nutritious – Shannon took it as an invitation to sexy taimes for which s/he wasn’t ready. Something worse could have happened: Alex may have intended it as an invitation for sex, and Shannon may have accepted the literal invitation while oblivious to the symbolism. I think we can all see here the risks of symbolism – while useful euphemisms can be made available, miscommunication is all too possible.

Speaking personally, I like to eat at home for reasons of deliciousness and economy. This can extend to eating at others’ homes. Regrettably, this is an act that carries potentially too much symbolism. In the context of a romance, accepting somebody in to your home is a gesture of intimacy; if one’s parents are present this symbolism is increased by the “meet the parents”ness of the whole situation. This is the bad news. The good news is that Melbourne features plenty of affordable and enjoyable eating options.

A Symbolic Word: Love

Communicating love is impossible. I simply don’t think it’s possible to tell someone how you feel, when that feeling is love, with anything approach 95% accuracy. But don’t just trust me: trust Gustave Flaubert, who is quoted as saying insightfully,

“La parole est humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.”

In English,

“Human language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes to make bears dance when what we really want is to move the stars.”

That is, love is more than words can possibly capture, and we attempt to do so in vain. Nonetheless, a number of interesting factors come in to play when communicating love.

Sage advice

For example, an undeniable factor in the symbolic value of a love message is the medium. Using SMS to express love symbolises something quite different to a grandiose gesture such as a flaming front lawn or, more prosaically, the spoken word. This is related to the ideas I established earlier on: it’s easier to say something by SMS than in person, so the choice of medium has an impact on the symbolic value.Let’s also regard the structuring of words. “I love you” we can accept as the holy grail of professions of love, with “I’m in love with you” far behind. The difference isn’t literal. It’s entirely symbolic. Each phrase has a culturally-established symbolism which makes it suitable for specific circumstances. Thus we have the delightful rejection line “I love you but I’m not in love with you”, a phrase which for all its semantical absurdity apparently expresses an affection that falls short of fervent attraction.

Professing “I love you” is so rich in symbolism that it connotes far more than merely certain feelings held by the speaker. More likely than not the speaker has felt that way for some time and the particular timing of the profession is no accident – something else is being expressed. Instantly, this phrase symbolises a wish to have the declaration repeated, to precipitate the somewhat trite “I love you too”. Further, declaring “I love you” could symbolise a wish for greater commitment (“I love you, please stop seeing other people”), a plea for clemency (“I love you, please ignore that I accidentally razed your house”), or an admission of powerlessness (“I love you, I’ll do whatever you want”). Thus the phrase is scary for the hearer: if somebody declares their love for you, you are in a rare position if they genuinely want only for you to know how they feel. In many cases, “I love you” is a question.

A Symbolic Act: Kissing

Kisses aren’t great for communication. They are very enjoyable, yes, but I can’t help but feel that they are somewhere below music, though above goat’s entrails, in terms of media for emotions. Do kisses say things that “It’s nice to see you” or “You turn me on” don’t convey? Maybe what is sacrificed in precision, is made up for by the intrinsic pleasures of the medium. Certainly saying things with kisses may take a little longer than, say, writing an email, but I’m not that busy and this is all quite nice. But I digress – it’s not so much the imprecision of kissing that concerns me as the downright miscommunication that can and result. But first, as is my wont, let’s consider some contexts.

What’s particularly interesting about kissing is the massive variety in symbolism, depending on context. We kiss our lovers, our relatives, our friends, each time with a different implication. We can kiss to start relationships, to end relationships, to greet or farewell. The Bible is a rich source of metaphor and symbolism, and we can draw from it the idea of the “Kiss of Judas”, originally used to identify Jesus to his executioners, now to refer to a putative act of friendship that is harmful to the recipient (like giving somebody a gift subscription to World of Warcraft). Oscar Wilde, again drawing on the Bible, refers to a “Kiss of Caiaphas” which the hanged man feels upon his cheek. On the other hand, in the context of a one night stand, I’m not sure if a kiss has any symbolism – it may be purely what it is, although the intensity of kissing may be symbolic.

More interesting, kissing is perhaps unique in how the symbolic gesture decays from a transcendental, long-awaited experience, to something routine and mundane. In the course of a long-term relationship, a couple could experience a first kiss as a symbol of a leap in to the unknown, an insinuation of something felt but not yet spoken. Years later, a kiss could become a disposable part of the morning routine: get the wallet and keys, kiss the spouse goodbye, straddle the bike and go to the coworking space. Does the kiss in the latter instance symbolise nothing? Or symbolise something less? Or symbolise something different? Consider what the absence of a kiss would mean: no single routine kiss may mean anything, but the withholding of a kiss could express all manner of things.

Because of the variety of associations available, it’s crucial to have a sense of what one intends to communicate with a kiss and, more importantly, what interpretation one’s fellow kisser is likely to arrive at. Thinking about kisses in my life, I can recall the pain of seeing once the object of my affection, at the other end of the party, kissing a boy I had previously pinned as being naught but her “good friend”. It wasn’t the literal kiss that pained me but the symbolism of the act: that she didn’t care if I were hurt. In another instance, I remember deliberately and delicately withholding a kiss from a female admirer, all too aware of the symbolic value that such a gesture would have. Yeah, so I’m a bastard. But at least I’m a culturally-sensitive one.

The Clanging of Symbols

People communicate so often in symbols that it is no surprise that the same is going on amidst discourses of romance. Regrettably, amongst romances more so than other contexts these symbols are likely to be misunderstood, perhaps due to the heightened emotional states or the novelty of the circumstances. While communication with symbols is inevitable and, indeed, desirable – there are no literal avenues for communicating feelings stronger than words – those of us who would aim to communicate effectively would do well to pay close attention to what others are intending to communicate to us, and what our actions might, intentionally or not, communicate to others.

[1] Taking this point further, I would argue that telling somebody the literal truth is deceitful if it leads them to a conclusion that is symbolically untrue. If a friend asked me if I enjoyed her friend’s poetry recital, and I hated it, it would be more honest to say that I loved it, as to say otherwise might transmit and untrue symbolic meaning – perhaps that I wanted to hurt my friend.

[2] Interestingly, in English as in Latin (and no doubt other languages), “home” does not take a preposition when it is a destination. We don’t say “let’s go to home”, but “let’s go home”, whereas saying “let’s go cinema” instead of “let’s go to the cinema” would be nonsense. What might this tell us?



  1. On Physical Affection in all Sorts of Relationships | Scit Necessitas - October 20, 2012

    […] lightly touching someone’s arm might show appreciation, a kiss indicates affection (or, golly, a bazillion other things). While physical affection is definitely less precise for communication, it is more profound. […]

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