Communicate Better With Semiology!

🇫🇷 French Version

After a real Masterclass in the We Are COM Club and our #1 article “Why Semiology is Essential to Communication,” about the psychological processes intrinsic to any communicative act, you’re probably a semiotic expert by now! 🚀 However, what are the ways in which this linguistic – and more – science applies to our professional lives as communicators? What are its new uses? What are the latest signs or words? Renowned semiologist Élodie Mielczareck tells us more about flawless communication. Ready? 🤗

Could you briefly remind us of the steps involved in a semiotic method?

First of all, let’s remember that semiology is interested in all types of signs: whether they’re written, heard, non-verbal or symbolic. Intentional or unintentional.

Language is a sign system expressing ideas, and because of this, it’s comparable to writing, the sign language alphabet, symbolic rites, rules of etiquette, military signs, etc. It’s only the most important out of these systems. We could therefore imagine a science that studies signs inside of social life; (…) we will call it semiology (…). It would teach us what signs are, what rules they follow.

Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of semiology

The semiotic method is similar to an “iceberg.” It spans from the most visible and manifest part of communication, then dives into the deepest values (which are sometimes buried under):

  1. Formal approach: goes from the visible sign to its signifier (the material element composing the sign). It’s the visible part of the iceberg, the most fluctuating area of communication.
  2. Narrative approach: digs into the intermediary and looks closely at the story conveyed (which mythology, what storytelling)? This level of analysis contends with different phenomena linked to variability and permanence.
  3. Axiological approach: to understand the deep meaning and uncover structural values that make up the system. It’s the worldview put forward and the most permanent level. Indeed, cultures evolve, signs get modernized, customs change, but the “chambers of meaning” remain the same.

More to the point, how can we use semiology as communicators?

The fact that advertising is used to sell and manipulate consumers does not interest semiology first-hand. Its interest rather lies in how advertising “speaks” and what it’s getting at underneath its messages, whether they’re commercial, appealing, seductive and more or less aestheticized. Under these appearances, you find messages that go beyond the product, where – unbeknownst to the creators – social (cultural) and personal (narcissistic) messages and representations sneak in and mix together, making them difficult to untangle. Because behind any discourse, whether emitted from a group, there’s a topic caught between the interlacing of fiction and History. It’s why some think that everything we dare not recognize, such as sexual difference, death, this century’s irreperable act (the Holocaust), or each person’s unspeakable taboos are on display in advertisements.

Anne-Marie Houdebine

It’s interesting to notice that communication is not necessarily controlled by the person creating it. The role of semiotics is therefore to understand what is conveyed without our conscious consideration. We can act as the Sherlock Holmes of communication, turning words into clues, as an effective way to uncover meaning (and ask the right questions).

More specifically, which fields of study underlie semiotic analysis?

There are multiple areas at play, which are both different and complementary:

> Verbal identity: What is the company’s language? Does it have a manifesto, a linguistic charter? What are its brand values? The company’s reason for existing?

> Behavioral identity: How do the leaders act? How is the tribe organized? What kind of customer relationship?

> Symbolic identity: What’s the company’s founding myth? What is its current storytelling model? What about tomorrow’s?

> Visual identity: Which signs trigger company or brand recognition? How are they different from the competition’s? 

What about semiology in current events?

Today more than ever, words talk about problems. Each word is a linguistic choice, the result of multiple factors: emotional, psychological, ideological…

The year 2020 was rough from a social point of view, but it is nevertheless fascinating from a linguistic and semiotic standpoint. It confirmed the fact that language is a living organ. We saw new words appear, some coined terms and even the return of older ones, imbued with new meanings.

“Quarantine” is an old word that we repurposed for today’s needs. As for “re-quarantine” or “self-quarantine,” these are brand new meanings. Let’s remind ourselves that language does not belong to anyone, it’s not fixed but evolves constantly, according to its speakers. Our language is not that of the dictionary or of the Académie française. For instance, even though French academics decided that the word “covid” was a feminine gender, we’ve seen that many speakers prefer to say “le covid” rather than “la covid.” As for linguists, they always believe spoken language takes precedence over language norms.

Consider these other new words that mirror our experience: “OK Boomer!”, “Reassurers” or “Solastalgia.” This last term, highly relevantto our current times, evokes the uncomfortable feelings and inner sadness when considering future events. It’s a kind of antonym for “nostalgia.” This brand new term unfortunately points towards a growing feeling among the global population. A synonym for “eco-anxiety,” this new word is a clue for how reality is evolving. It’s not just a concept: it’s linked to a new real-life experience.

In a more concrete manner, brands surf on these new language types. Slogans and advertising campaigns rely on our daily experiences. If we were to pick a few, based on the work done by the Slogan Observatory, here are a few brands who readily mention the pandemic:

> “Chill at home!” – IKEA

> “To defend your buying power, Marque Repère is freezing its prices until the end of quarantine.” – E.Leclerc

> “The truth must never be masked.” – UNESCO

> “Bricomarché gives you all the tools for a successful reopening!” – Bricomarché 

These days, how can we pick our words so they speak closely to our audiences?

A word always stands at the center of five complementary perspectives:

> Physiological: A word is articulated, it has a beginning and an end, what we more commonly refer to as a “syntagm.” It can evolve, however the image is expressed at once.

> Historical: Above all else, a word carries etymological and historical heritage. It has a phylogenetic history, it acquires nuance along with its different meanings and connotations.

> Psychological: Words are personalized clues according to each person’s sensibilities: “semiotypes.”

> Symbolic: According to different eras or events, words can win or lose their symbolic capital.

> Ideological: Which fantasies are lurking behind a certain usage? Each word is part of a specific, filtered and imaginary representation of the world. 

What’s interesting is that the frequency of a word’s usage is inversely proportional to its semantic load. Adverbs or even prepositions, often used in language, don’t hold strong meaning. Whereas the term “prison,” for instance, has instant meaning. Let’s take the more current example of “quarantine.” Its semantic load weakens as we keep using the word.

What’s most difficult for a communicator is to find the right balance between “pivot” words: used often enough to act as references, but not enough to lose their semantic load. Indeed, words can become “zombies”: totally void of their original meaning, or conversely, full of abstract values. For example, the word “radical” comes from “root,” so to become “radicalized” initially meant “going to the root of things”: this meaning is not understandable in the current context. To the contrary, the word “democracy” is not empty, but too full of fantasies and projections: everyone assigns their own enchanting definition to it.

What are the best practices for meaningful communication?

“Authentic” communication, in other words carrying strong and equivocal meaning is the opposite of what we refer to these days as “political cant.” We can define it as hollow, rigid and fixed discourse. Here are some other language elements you should handle with caution:

> Redundancies, often made up of a “noun + adjective” which can muddle the truth: “social justice,” “participatory democracy,” etc.

> Oxymorons, use them with moderation (or they drive people crazy). They can reconcile two opposite realities: “perceived GDP” – Read the article – (with extra psychological aspect), “sustainable development” (instead of just “eco-friendly”), etc.

> Performative expressions are very deeply embodied, they can change reality: “I’m touched by what you’re saying,” “I now declare you husband and wife”…

> Some expressions are “interrupters.” They are both frequently and intensely used, and still carry strong emotional power: “me too,” “la familia grande”…

> Other impersonal turns-of-phrase lose all of their meaning, like the popular “shoulda-woulda-coulda,” typical of political cant where the speaker is disengaged.

> We should note that in daily conversations, some expressions of politeness are semantically light but let the speaker save face: “I’m honored to have this exchange with you” 

> Finally, the absence of words also represents a language unit. Sometimes it’s the most efficient. What remains unsaid can be just as eloquent as what is said. Let’s take Emmanuel Macron for instance, who preferred to use the term “curfew” in his speech when announcing the first quarantine. 

The final word

To wrap up, I’d like to add that the political cant phenomenon is not only verbal. Look at the packaging on a Coca-Cola can: its vertical font, as well as its slight curve – slimmer in the middle – and going top to bottom, remind us of a slim waist. However, who really believes they’re staying thin when drinking soda? This is how a combination of signs can send us back – through manipulation of course – to “magical thinking.” And our human brain seems wired to love fiction and these signs, which we perceive subconsciously. 

Elodie Mielczareck

Passionate semiologist, body language specialist and strategy consultant for businesses.

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