Visual Culture meets an international perspective. Language acquisition, cognitive psychology, gender & women's studies, and odd foreign stuff. The photos are my own. The images from my collections.

Color, Space, Objects & Associations: Images and Interculturality

Expanded version of earlier post on Sociological Images

In 2003, I published an article criticizing commercial language learning programs for their ethnocentric, generic, and uninformative use of visual aides in their software programs. Since then, I have been slowly working on an alternative to generic images for language and culture instruction by compiling a database of culturally organized images called the Culturally Authentic Pictorial Lexicon (CAPL).

What strikes me as both a language learner and language and culture professor is that the visual world differs so greatly among different cultures, foreign and domestic, and even the minor differences are telling in how we organize and perceive our world. As way of introduction, I will explore four ways in which the visual world differs and how that can help us understand language, culture, and society.

Color is one of the easiest ways to find differences in cultures. I have previously discussed the linguistic and cognitive differences of color, but now I want to show some simple examples of color in culture through analysis of various postal systems.  

In China, the postal system uses a deep hunter green.

In Japan, it is a bright red, much like the UK
In Germany, it is a bright yellow (think DHL)

In Russia, it is a lighter but similar shade of the deep postal blue in the US.

This example of postal systems is an easy way to illustrate how color becomes one of the central ways to communicate, and although the same message is shared across cultures, the path to that message varies through color.

It is not only the functional meaning of color that matters for intercultural communication, there are more subjective ways that color communicates between cultures.
Egg yolks, for example, vary slightly in color among cultures. In the UK and in the US, the yolks tend to be a paler form of yellow.
In Germany, a deeper, almost orange hue to the yolk is an indicator of high quality.

While this deeper color can be easily achieved through a change in the feed, as it is often the case in Germany, color in this instance is a quality indicator that varies among cultures and the perception of the “health” of the egg is affected by the color.

The simplest way to imagine how visual aspects of space are culturally determined is to imagine subjective adjectives like large, small, beautiful, ugly, and apply them to every day objects.  Is a “small” American house a “small” German house?

Beyond the subjective, however, are numerous ways in which visual clues guide our daily lives. In this instance, I focus on inlaid tiles in Japan. The first is an example of the numerous raised tiles indicating paths for the blind. While the texture is designed to communicate with blind pedestrians, the color of the tile and the lines force a spatial awareness in the viewer that heightens sensibility to blind pedestrians navigating the city.

I found it also interesting that visual cues on inlaid tiles help organize queueing at trains stations in Japan. The tiles indicate the type of ticket one has and where the door for a particular train will open, helping to maximize the efficiency of train boarding at crowded stations.

These visual clues are significant for a culture that must organize space in a more efficient way due to the simple lack of space relative to the population.  

Beyond the visual clues laid out in the Japanese environment, there are visual textual elements at play. A visual text in a foreign language may not  be so foreign when you know where to look for the information. Even those who cannot read Japanese might be able to discern between time of departure and the train number itself. The rest may be not understood.

Similarly a German train schedule indicates similar features. However, visual clues may not be enough as this sign indicates that the train is not to be boarded (nicht einsteigen).

For visual texts, we use assumptions to locate information spatially, visual clues to get other relevant information, and rely on language when we can use it.  

You may not even need to travel far to find an object that you simply do not know. If you live in a city, you may be perplexed by objects on a farm. If you grew up on a farm, you may have never used public transportation before, and if you have never been to Japan, you may have never encountered the variety of technologies associated with the modern toilet.

The object on the wall is a machine that makes sounds when you wave your hand in front of it. It is designed to mask unwanted sounds emanating from the restroom.

A “foreign” object often reflects a culturally specific process. In many parts of Germany, public transportation is based on the honor system. A traveler purchases a ticket in advance, then ‘cancels’ the ticket using a special ticket cancelling machine seen here:

I still remember being perplexed when I first saw one and trying to figure out why someone would need to insert a ticket. It never occurred to me that riders could time stamp their own ticket and that the bus driver wouldnot need to see your ticket in order for you to be able to ride.

Many of the previous examples lead to the associative level of communication. However, it is not just that a particular color creates an association or that a particular foreign object, once understood, creates a new association in the mind of the viewer, it relies more on a term of visual exposure to certain visual objects that creates a particular cultural association in the mind. Long term, our visual exposure creates complex associations with objects, their colors, and their sizes. I have two examples that work well here.
The first is the object is a ball made from the leaves of the cedar tree.

It is hung outside of sake shops in Japan to indicate that fresh sake has arrived. Initially, the ball has green leaves indicating the most fresh sake, browning over time to let the patrons know how fresh it still is.  Such visual modes of communication are often linked with deep cultural associations for the people exposed to them on a regular basis.

The second example is similar in that it involves a beverage, as often food and drink are clearly understood ways to access culture.

Such a view upward into a grove of chestnut leaves can be found on many summer days in southern Germany. It is the view from a Bavarian beer garden. The chestnut tree served a functional purpose before the days of refrigeration in that the leaves are wide, provide a great deal of shade to keep the beer cool, and come out very early in the spring beer garden season. The Bavarian beer garden itself, with tall chestnuts and white pebble stones, is designed to keep the thirsty patrons and the beer cool. In Bavaria, it is hard to find a respectable beer garden that does not have these characteristics as the long term association with the very concept of a beer garden is coupled with the chestnut tree and the shade it provides.

These are only a few examples of how culture differs visually. The greatest point is something we most all accept, that images are very central to communication today. It should logically follow that given any subculture, visual aspects of communication would vary.

I would love to hear from people about their examples of visual differences among cultures. This need not be foreign culture.  As anyone from the Pittsburgh region will easily recognize this object , its color and size, and the cultural associations.