Why Semiotics Are Essential To Communication

🇫🇷 French Version

How do we play with words, what are their meanings, signifiers and connotations? Is the sender’s intention always perceived in the same way by the receiver? You already know that it isn’t! So in order to communicate effectively, let’s focus on the psychological mechanisms at work when two entities reach an understanding, ideally one that’s common or at least “optimized.” 🤓

🚀 We had the great pleasure of welcoming an expert in the matter during a workshop with Club We Are COM: Elodie Mielczareck, a passionate and captivating semiologist. Specialized in language and “body language,” she works as a consultant and delivers training to corporate leaders to develop communication strategies: semiological auditing, strategic planning, and defining brand values. She’s also a frequent guest on television, offering a semiological analysis of current events. Let’s take advantage of this first episode to soak in all of her spectacular knowledge.

Would you like to know how to put semiology into practice? Go to episode #2 for more top tips. Let the magic begin! 🔮

Hello Élodie! First of all, do you think communicating is a smooth human process?

Too often we’re stuck in this idea that communication is innate and flows easily. Indeed, we master its rules from the youngest age. And this is way before we’re able to speak in our maternal tongue, since communication is far from only verbal.

However, once we start digging deeper, this question becomes much more complex. We must start by overriding a certain number of myths…

There is a universal fantasy: that communication is obvious. Many consider it to be fluid and direct. In fact, communication is more random than we think. We are not telepathic: thinking that communication is without “accidents” or “rifts in meaning” is utopic. Let’s set the record straight: the richness of language is a direct result of the depth between thoughts and words.    

Ambiguities, inverted meanings and failed effects are plentiful in communication, to the delight of semiologists! Semiotic analysis is valuable because it takes a sharp look at what happens in the “margins” of communication: everything that takes place in the cracks and corners. This is directly in opposition to the communicator, who deals more with what happens on stage; the semiologist rather trains the spotlight on what’s behind the scenes.

Between what I’m thinking, what I want to say, what I think I’m saying, what I am saying, what you want to hear, what you’re really hearing, what you think you understand, what you want to understand, and what you do understand, there’s at least nine possible ways we won’t understand each other.

Bernard Weber

This famous author evokes nine possible ways in which we can reach a semiotic deviation. We could find even more of them. This is where I like to speak of “magic” in the process of understanding. The magic of communication is to believe that we always understand each other, and somehow, to succeed.

In a more concrete sense, we are facing blurred areas between the message sent and the message received. The intended meaning is that encoded by the sender, the perceived meaning is that which has reached the receiver after decoding. Encoding and decoding make up these blurred areas. The semiologist takes interest in the real meaning emitted (which is neither at the start or the arrival).

In semiotics, we focus on the real values emitted before anything else, which is to say the intermediary phase of comprehension. We first put aside the sender’s intentions and the receiver’s psychology. In a way, our discipline resides in the margins of communication, in the cracks where all sorts of accidents can happen during interpretation. Indeed, the semiologist is more interested in the signs and effects created, than in the sender’s will and wishes.  

In times of crisis, does the “magic of communication” still work?

Let’s be honest: communication doesn’t only rely on the words we write, read or hear. The magic we’ve spoken of does not depend on language from the dictionary, but on a profound and powerful alchemy that emerges between speakers. An “efficient” communication creates pertinence between what’s said and not said, what’s present and absent, the material and the conceptual… This alignment is “magic” because it’s inexplicable in its entirety.    

Why do you and I understand each other? Not just because we share a common language and culture. Far from it… We understand each other because we have access to reciprocal intentions. In other words, a large part of communication is determined by context and known practices, but also through an understanding of everything that’s implicit, presupposed and left unsaid. Everything that’s immaterial and beyond the sign is a part of communication.

And the COVID pandemic is here to remind us: information is not communication. The digital nature of our exchanges has proven that distributing information is not “enough” to create a community. As an example, the Kruger&Co (2005) experiment proves that the “sarcastic” tone of an email is only perceived around half of the time (56%). That’s very low!

Digital media is very efficient to transfer data (information), but much less so to transfer intentions and emotions (communication). Communication has many dimensions, and they can’t all go through digital channels. Here are the main consequences of this:

  • > Globally, the paraverbal elements linked to voice (intonation, pace, pause, etc.) are more or less faithfully rendered when technology allows it.
  • > The infraverbal elements linked to physiological changes (pupil dilation, reddenings, pheromones, etc.), and what informs us -subconsciously- about the state of the relationship, are completely absent. 
  • > Kinetics linked to body movements and facial expressions are rather available when speakers turn on their camera. The only problem is that we’re exchanging with “truncated” men and women, since we can only see the top part of their body.

So a whole facet of communication escapes us. We could even ask ourselves if we’re not experiencing, without knowing it, some pathologies such as prosopagnosia, (difficulties in recognizing faces), alexithymia (difficulties in naming emotions), social phobia (“others are carrying a virus I must avoid”) and emotional anesthesia (considering the role played by mirror neurons, if my brain is perceiving fewer emotions because people are wearing masks, then I’m also feeling fewer emotions…)

According to you, which parts of the brain are most sensitive to communication?

We are highly influenced by completely automatic processes on which we have no control, and we don’t know that we’re doing it. (…) No one would say: I vote for this guy because he has the largest chin,” but in reality that’s what’s happening.

David Kahneman

David KahnemanThis famous psychologist and economist – who won a Nobel prize in 2002 – shook things up with his work. He provides scientific proof that our decision making is irrational. In fact, the human brain is composed of two areas that are simultaneously conflicting and complementary.

On the one hand there’s “System 1.” Located in the limbic and reptilian areas, it represents our “animal” and instinctive brain. Its system is home to connections that are fast, subconscious and automatic. It can make up to 95% of our daily brain activity. That’s enormous! This “autopilot” functions according to its own language that’s sensitive to associations and free of negations. If I tell you: whatever you do, don’t think of a pink elephant! What did you think about? The linguist George Lakoff took a keen interest in these linguistic processes.

On the other hand there’s “System 2.” This last one is less called upon, and might represent a mere 5% of our total decisions. It requires more effort and concentration, resting on the slow pace of reason and logic. It’s our “conscious pilot,” the one that takes the time to analyze. To sum up, it’s the most rational part of our brain. 

For other researchers like Antonio Damasio, both systems are part of an entity: reason and emotion are exactly the same thing, just not at the same time! And the “emotional brain” always wins, even if your “rational brain” applies a frame of logic. 

Finally, is understanding a message more of a conscious or subconscious process?

Coming back to professional communication, that of brands and corporations, the language you use in advertising campaigns is, for instance, definitely rational and crafted, it’s part of your System 2. However, in the first stages, it will only be perceived by your target audience’s System 1. In the end, to be a communicator is to be a translator: to make logical information more appetizing (system 2), and transform it so that it is appreciated and selected (system 1).

For this reason, speaking the subconscious’ language is important: knowing how to wield it, manipulate it and orient it; for many people this is the Holy Grail and justly so. In fact, neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene has studied this topic. We could shortly summarize a few of his findings into two main ideas:

  • Our subconscious can recall millions of information pieces per second, versus our conscious brain which only recalls a few dozen in the same time frame.
  • Symbolic representations take a certain amount of time to be decoded by our conscious brain, while our subconscious interprets them immediately.

Indeed, the subconscious is very sensitive to certain types of signs, like symbols and archetypes. But also, as we will see in episode 2, to certain words: all words don’t hold equal power.

What about our brain, how does it perceive reality? If reality exists…

Our understanding of the world is made up of different filters. First, sensory filters: the way we experience reality isn’t the same as for a fly, for instance, because our senses aren’t the same. We have 5 senses. But if we take your dog or your cat for example, their sense of smell is much more developed, and their perception of color is much less contrasted. Therefore, our perceptions of reality greatly differ. Then there are other more cultural filters: language selects data from reality that it deems relevant. Finally, there are personal filters related to our experiences. In the end, we never really have direct access to the world around us. This world is created by our senses, experiences and beliefs.

What’s interesting to note in the context of communication are the linguistic consequences of our relationship to the world. A word is a choice we’ve made regarding reality, but it is not reality itself. This is why Spinoza said, and we attribute this quote to him, that “the word dog doesn’t bark.”

What is reality? What’s the definition of real? If you mean that which you can touch, you can taste, see and feel, then reality is only an electrical signal interpreted by your brain.

Matrix – Lana et Lilly Wachowski

Here’s where we stumble upon a thousand-year-old debate in the philosophy of language: the relationship between a word and what it designates. This dilemma opposes two schools of thought:

  1. Nominalists affirm that each thing has its own essence. So words are like tags: changing the word does not change the thing.
  2. Constructivists, conversely, believe that a thing only exists and is created through the gaze of an observer. Words are not tags, and we cannot change them without changing the things they refer to.

Semiologists are constructivists. If a tree falls and no one sees it or hears it, then it does not constitute reality. Reality only exists through different points of view, of which words are clues. 

To summarize, could you tell us which position is best to adopt as a communicator, in order to gain perspective?

Words are increasingly more liquid. They get deformed according to perspectives, modifying reality constantly. They are the sum of their etymological history, their symbolic weight bestowed by society, and the psychological baggage of each speaker: words have an endlessly deep resonance.

Semiology helps to explain all of this. As a discipline it lets us form conclusive analyses thanks to its unusual positioning.

The semiologist is one who sees meaning where others see objects.

Umberto Éco, citing Roland Barthes

So semiology relies on four main premises:

  1. Reality is a human construction. Objects are only the result of perspective. As a communicator, ask yourself the question: which bias am I currently espousing?
  2. Nothing is obvious. Sometimes you must learn to deconstruct in order for a corpus to make sense. Take on the ingenuity of a child, a gaze of wonder… If I were an alien, how would I perceive this communication device? That’s a good question to ask yourself.
  3. The vessel is more interesting than its content. We are more interested in the how than in the why. For communicators, that means studying the invariables: where are they in your communication? And conversely, where can you innovate?
  4. The object is a system of relationships. From a purely analytical and cold perspective, the semiologist sets down “grammar rules.” As a communicator, you should ask the question of relevance: how do signs, once combined, form a coherent ensemble?  

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

Hungry for more? Discover the rest of this workshop for very practical advice on integrating semiology in your communication!

BONUS – Are you a good semiologist?

Here’s a mini test: see how well you know semiology in 5 minutes! A good way to test your basic knowledge on the topic. Fair warning, the results could surprise you… Will you be brave enough to try?

Elodie Mielczareck

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

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