Colour semiotics and what they mean in other cultures
Semiotics is an investigation into how meaning is created and how meaning is communicated. Like how we all know that a red traffic light means stop – someone had made that meaning become part of reality a long time ago and we were taught this when we were growing up. When we were children, we were taught the meanings of different things and now we can instantly understand an interpretation without even thinking about it.
Like symbols, each colour represents something and they can even have different meanings from one culture to another. Colours can be used as a way of signifying value, emotions, orders and so on.
What’s the point of semiotics? Colour was just used as an example although semiotics can be used in symbols, gestures, and emotions too – you name it. The idea is that we don’t cause confusion and we follow a system that everybody understands – being considerate with what other ‘cultures’ think is one way to avoid any awkwardness or failure in branding or advertising.
What if for one day red means ‘go’ and green means ‘stop’ – what would happen? Would it take a while for everyone to get used to the change? Suppose there’d be many accidents… Read on to find out why you should avoid yellow in France and Germany.
Romantic, angry, alarming
Red is the most powerful of all colours in Indian culture and holds many important meanings. Among them are fear and fire, wealth and power, purity, fertility, seduction, love, and beauty. A married woman can be identified by the red henna on her hands.
In South Africa, red is associated with mourning, and the section of red in the country’s flag symbolizes violence and sacrifices that were made during the struggle for independence.
In Thai tradition, each day of the week is assigned a specific colour and is linked with a particular God. Red is the colour for Sundays, and it’s associated with Surya, a solar God, who was born on this day.
In Chinese culture, red is traditionally worn on the New Year, as well as during funerals and weddings. It represents celebration and is meant to bring luck, prosperity, happiness, and a long life to the people.
Energetic, happiness, danger
Take France, for example, where yellow signifies jealously, betrayal, weakness, and contradiction. In the 10th century, the French painted the doors of traitors and criminals yellow. And in Germany, yellow symbolizes jealousy.
In China, yellow is associated with pornography. When the Chinese term for “yellow picture” or “yellow book” is used to discuss any type of publication or media, it’s in reference to pornographic images and websites.
Yellow is reserved only to people of high rank in many African nations, because of its close resemblance to gold, which is universally associated with money, quality, and success. Egyptians also closely associate yellow with gold, which was commonly used to paint mummies and tombs before the deceased were sent to the afterlife, making it symbol for mourning.
In Japanese culture, yellow has represented bravery, wealth, and refinement since the War of Dynasties in 1357. During this time, warriors wore yellow chrysanthemums—which represent the emperor in Japan and royal family—as a pledge of courage.
Considered lucky in Thai culture, yellow is the lucky colour for Monday, and it’s considered the most important shade of the week because it represents the King of Thailand, King Bhumibol, who has held reign since June 9, 1946, and was born on December 5th, in 1927—a Monday. To pay tribute to the king, many Thais wear yellow on Mondays, and some schools require all teachers to wear yellow during the first week of December.
Calm, corporate, safe
From depression to royalty to trust, blue holds more meanings than any other colour around the world. Blue is also a symbol of masculinity and represents the birth of a boy—the opposite of China, where blue is considered a feminine colour.
In Western Cultures, blue is commonly associated with feeling melancholy—hence, having “the blues.” And while that’s true, it’s also considered to be a calming and soothing colour that symbolizes trust, security, and authority—a reason why many American banks, such as Citi and Bank of America, use blue for their logo.
In many Middle Eastern countries, blue means safety and protection, and is symbolic of heaven, spirituality, and immortality.
Many religions have their own associations for the colour blue as well. For example, in many Latin American countries—which are known to have high Catholic populations— blue is a sign of hope and good health, and is symbolic of Virgin Mary, who is often depicted wearing a blue robe and headscarf, and represents wealth.
In Judaism, blue is the shade for holiness and divinity, and in Hinduism it’s the colour of Krishna—the most highly worshipped Hindu god who embodies love and joy, and destroys pain and sin.
Environmental, fresh, pure
Green shares many common meanings around the world, some of which include nature, ecology, environmental awareness, the military, and the colour for traffic lights.
In Western cultures, green represents luck, nature, freshness, spring, environmental awareness, wealth, inexperience, and jealousy (the “green-eyed monster”). Of course, green is an emblematic colour for Ireland, which earned its sobriquet “The Emerald Isle” from its lush green landscapes.
In Indonesia, green has traditionally been forbidden, whereas in Mexico, it’s a national colour that stands for independence. Across many South American cultures that are rich in forests, green symbolizes death.
In the Middle East, green represents fertility, luck, and wealth, and it’s considered the traditional colour of Islam. In Eastern cultures, green symbolizes youth, fertility, and new life, but it can also mean infidelity. In fact, in China, green hats for men are taboo because it signals that their wives have committed adultery!
Royalty, wealth, premier
Royalty, wealth, power, exclusivity, and fame are common themes for the colour purple across many Eastern and Western cultures. For many centuries, purple dye was extremely rare and difficult to produce because it was extracted from sea snails. As a result, purple clothing was expensive and became a status symbol among kings, queens, and other rulers.
Just as black is the traditional colour for death and grieving in many cultures, purple shares the same meaning in some European nations, including the U.K. and Italy, as well as Brazil, Thailand, India, and among many Catholics. In Thailand and Brazil, purple is customarily worn alongside black when mourning of the death of a loved one, and in Brazilian culture, it is considered unlucky to wear purple when not attending a funeral or related service.
In the United States, purple—the symbol for honour and courage—is represented by the Purple Heart, the military’s highest award given to soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen for their acts of bravery.
Delightful, fun, happiness
Ever heard that adding more orange to your wardrobe will liven things up? That’s because in many Western cultures, orange is considered a fun and edgy colour, and represents curiosity, trying new things, and creativity.
Certain countries also associate orange with wealth. In the Netherlands, for example, it’s the national colour and represents the Dutch Royal family. But in many Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt, orange is associated with mourning.
In Japanese and Chinese cultures, orange signifies courage, happiness, love, and good health. And in Indian cultures, it’s symbolic of fire. The orange-coloured spice, saffron, is considered to be lucky and sacred.
A symbol of strength and bravery in Ukraine, orange represents a time when the country came together in 2004 and stood up to the government during one of the biggest fraudulent presidential elections in history, known as the Orange Revolution.
In the Netherlands, orange is the colour of the Dutch Royal family, while it also represents sexuality and fertility in Colombia. In Eastern cultures, orange symbolizes love, happiness, humility, and good health. Buddhist monks’ robes are often orange.
Romantic, sweet, cute
It’s widely accepted in Western cultures as the colour for femininity, love, romance, caring, tenderness, and the birth of a baby girl. And while many Eastern countries associate pink with these meanings, they don’t apply to every culture.
In Japan, for example, pink relates more to men than women, although it’s worn by both genders. In Korea, it symbolizes trust, and in Latin America, it’s symbolic to architecture. For many years, pink was an unrecognized colour in China until it emerged into the culture due to increasing Western influences—the Chinese word for it translates as “foreign colour.”
And in general, pink is said to be mentally stimulating, reduce violent behaviour, and make people feel calmer and more controlled, which is why many prison holding cells are painted this colour.
Prestigious, intimidating, powerful
In many cultures, black symbolizes sophistication and formality, but it also represents death, evil, mourning, magic, fierceness, illness, bad luck, and mystery. In the Middle East, black can represent both rebirth and mourning. In Africa, it symbolizes age, maturity, and masculinity.
As companies become more global, it can be beneficial to understand the cross-cultural meanings of colours. By knowing the symbolism of different colours around the world, you’ll be able to speak to your audience in a way that’s both culturally appropriate and effective.
Clean, simple, pure
In Western cultures, white symbolizes purity, elegance, peace, and cleanliness; brides traditionally wear white dresses at their weddings. But in China, Korea, and some other Asian countries, white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals. In Peru, white is associated with angels, good health, and time.
To learn more about the colour meanings, read on from the following links below:
Yellow 2CV image: Credits by Catarina Belova / Shutterstock, Inc