Social Meaning and Cultural Codes in Communication

Culture is a pattern of rules, premises, meanings and symbols constructed socially and passed through history. For example surfers define a culture by means of their unique pattern of rules, meanings and symbols that have been socially constructed and passed on. “Dude, hang ten!”

Cultural codes of communication are rules, premises, meanings and symbols which are used to judge and interpret your own actions and those of others. They are structured, distinctive and socially consequential.

Cross-cultural communication are situations where communication takes place across the different speech codes of cultures, for example if a hippy and a yuppie were talking, or Eliza Doolittle and Professor Higgins.

Ethnographic definition is the interpretation of word as understood by specific culture, distinctive from the standard dictionary definition. For example, the term communication as understood by Nacirema.

Account is a verbal statement where someone tries to explain themselves and the reason for their actions. It is a statement trying to make actions comprehensible, to help another understand.

Social meaning is the intention, values and attitudes reflected or implied through the communication choices we make. In this course we have taken it to mean what is meant when a choice is made – for instance the choice to shake someone’s hand and smile when being introduced, or instead, leaving arms crossed and offering a stern nod instead. I can’t help but think of the recent incident with Brad Pitt in a foreign country with Angelina Jolie, they were meeting with a high official and Brad had his bare foot exposed and propped up on the coffee table. Perhaps this didn’t mean much to him, however the social meaning in that culture was significant.

With the Dakota Indians in the story of Waterlily we learn of Blue Birds first husband who chose to divorce her by use of a cultural code involving throwing a stick which symbolized her away. The social meaning behind this ritual of divorce was to embarrass her and to shame her publically though the words did not directly state this. Likewise, when Waterlily was reserved with her new husband in private, she was displaying respect for him and that he had worked a long hard day.

The code of honor was very important in Teamsterville culture. As such, if man’s mother or partner were insulted men would jump to defend their own honor as a personal insult of themselves. Therefore we can see that the social meaning of insulting a woman is to insult the man that she is related to (whether by blood or love).

The Nacierma are adept at assigning social meaning to every little behavior. In this culture every nuance of communication is up for scrutiny and this is perhaps best emphasized when in an argument with a woman. Any look, gesture, or audible sigh is taken as a sign of something of greater meaning.

We use cultural codes to conduct our lives. How true this is. Without established rules of communication we would be unable to determine what actions we should take and under what conditions. Therefore cultural codes really are at the core of what makes us a society. It’s what binds up together as a group – without it we are individuals wondering around without a connection, without a common understand. This is to say, I believe cultural codes of communication are the ‘ties that bind’.

Keywords are interesting elements to examine for meaning within a culture. For example let’s consider the keyword ‘dude’. Webster’s dictionary definition might tell you that a dude is a derogatory term for an inexperienced guest or rider on a hunt. Or it might inform you that it man who dresses flashily or is concerned with his appearance; a dandy. However when looking at the modern American surf culture you can form an ethnographic definition for ‘dude’ that has long since replaced the traditional understanding of the word and its definition. Ethnographically one would define the keyword ‘dude’ as a friend, or a generic term for addressing a person.

What’s even more interesting is seeing how this term is used in social drama. Once you start paying attention it’s easy to note many instances when a confrontational statement is prefaced with “Dude.” As in “Dude where’s my car?”, or “Dude. That was so uncool.” Likewise when someone offers an account for their actions, “Dude, I’m so sorry…”.

In our reading we saw a keyword being used in Richard’s life. He and his siblings were referred to as “pocho”. The a Mexican dictionary would define the term “pocho” as colorless or bland. However through the eyes of an ethnographic researcher examining Richards life we’d define the term as a somewhat derogatory word referring to a Mexican-American who has ‘forgotten’ his native society.

As in my previous example a social drama brings out the use of such a keyword – for example Richard’s uncle challenging his young nephews Mexican linguistic skills. Thereby we learn that the cultural code of the native Mexican dictates that you must not forget where you came from while adjusting to a new culture.

Through these illustrations its easy to see how cultural codes are required to make sense of the world around you. To be an American is to know that ‘Dude’ is used as a emphatic term to convey meaning, not to refer to a guy who’s wrapped up in how he looks. Likewise a German visiting Mexico might understand a ‘pocho’ when in reference to a person as being a ‘bland’ person with the use of their translation dictionary; however they will have missed the true social meaning because cultural codes are structured, distinctive and socially consequential. They are the ‘ties that bind’.


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