Archive for the ‘Australasia’ Category


Short List – Troy

Monday, February 17th, 2014

Editor’s note: In the version of this article originally submitted the two campaigns analysed were identified as being for the same environmental organisation, which was using the contrasting paradigms identified here. A request for permission to reproduce illustrations from the campaigns was declined by that organisation on the basis that these were off-brand and/or ghost campaigns. Another organisation now owns the copyright of one of the campaigns mentioned, which we reproduce here with permission. This updated version of the article replaces the specific organisation named in the original with the generic ‘environmental and wildlife organisations’. Our links, at the time of publication, still give access to the images on which the detailed analysis is based. The two paradigms identified are, of course, valid in spite of these editorial change which inevitably brings about some loss of precision. These paradigms are coincidentally also the focus of debate among academic biosemioticians currently. The Semionaut Award judging panel will base their final decision on the merits of all the short listed papers and will take the original fully illustrated version as their reference point for this one.


Humankind is currently confronted by global warming and mass species extinction, both of which are arguably exacerbated, if not directly caused, by human action. While humans may be the cause, all species, including humans, are at risk, and, in this way, all species are equal. Yet the way that environmental and wildlife organisations represent this issue in their various campaigns does not always suggest this is so. In some campaigns, the victim is a nonhuman species, while in others the victim is human. At the same time, the campaigns juxtapose the natural against the artificial or technological. Analysis of the semiotics employed by environmental organisations in their various advertising campaigns reveals there are two dualisms at work, namely human/nonhuman and natural/technological. These dualisms can operate to see humankind as the culprit of global warming and species extinction, such that they maintain human hubris as beyond nature. Alternatively, the dualisms can position humans as victims, knocking us off the branches of our evolutionary tree to bring us back down to earth.

Humankind as beyond nature

Several advertising campaigns represent humankind as both the cause and means of prevention of species extinction. Such campaigns include “Help protect the future of endangered species”  and “Before it’s too late” . These two campaigns allude to an imagined future in which natural animals have been replaced by artificial simulacra – cyborgs in one, origami in the other. While these campaigns suggest that technological replacements are inferior to the natural or real thing, these campaigns reaffirm the natural/technological dualism. Another campaign, “Our life at the cost of theirs?”, makes explicit this alignment of human and technology. Human interests are diametrically opposed to the wellbeing of nonhuman species, and the provocative campaign title is supported by artwork of metropolises that have the shape of animals.

In such advertising campaigns, it seems that technology and nature cannot exist in symbiosis and humankind’s alignment with the technological works to sever us from the natural world. Not only this, but the consequences of global warming and species extinction are kept at our arm’s length – it is not we who are at risk of extinction, but them. Thus, such campaigns also reaffirm the human/nonhuman dualism. In doing so, both the natural and nonhuman are represented as passive victims of humans and technology, and the call for action in these campaigns in dependent on seeing the nonhuman as objects to be valued, thus maintaining human hubris as above and beyond nature.

Humankind as part of nature


A second group of campaigns represent humankind as being part of nature and, thus, at risk from global warming and species extinction. One such campaign is “Preserve your world. Preserve yourself” which uses optical illusions to give a human face to forest scenes. While this face could be read as belonging to Mother Nature, the campaign slogan encourages the viewer to consider themselves, and thus humankind, within the natural setting. Another campaign, “Their extinction is ours as well,” further embeds humankind within nature. For this series of advertisements, naked humans pose in animal-like stances within a jungle setting. Yet a third campaign, “Stop climate change before it changes you” blends the human and the animal; the subject of the advertisement is a man whose head has morphed into that of a fish . Such campaigns challenge the human/animal dualism and reaffirm humankind’s animality and dependence on the natural world. Because of this, humans are positioned as the subject and belonging to nature. We are thus victims of global warming and at risk of extinction ourselves.


Unlike those campaigns that set humans apart from nature, these campaigns that embed humankind within nature move towards a more inclusive global ethics. While arguably the call for action appeals to humankind’s self-preservation, that these campaigns challenge the human/nonhuman dualism invites the viewer to reconsider humankind’s animality and our place within nature. Such campaigns encourage us to view nonhuman species as our kin, not objects of our affection that we should preserve for our own pleasure.

© Troy Potter 2014


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Day-Glo Love RIP

Friday, January 17th, 2014


I’M NOT SHOUTING AT YOU, IT’S JUST THAT THE ANTIPODES ARE EMERGING FROM SOMETHING OF A FLUORESCENCE FEST; a cavorting carnival of day-glo where, around every corner, something harmfully orange or green lies in wait to colourfully mug you.  But, scratching beneath the surface, this brash urban grammar is semiotically rich. Ramrodded into a semiotic square, it might look something like this:


OFFLINE NOTORIETY:  With the likes of Tumblr elevating fashions and personalities out of obscurity, fluoro is the offline equivalent.  Just as night athletes and workmen leverage fluorescent strips to achieve high vis standout, and a highlighter pen is used to illuminate valuable text, fluorescent fashion and goods yield instant personal notoriety in a culture that is saturated with aesthetic noise. A little bit loud, a little bit lary.  This power of saliency was recently exploited by Australian Aboriginal artist, Reko Rennie, who covered the façade of a prominent Sydney building with the traditional geometric markings of the Gadigal people.  Using a strikingly fluorescent colour palette he defiantly foregrounded the issue of Aboriginal land rights and more broadly re-illuminated the ongoing suppression of Australia’s first people.  Widespread embrace of fluoro by youth may also reflect a generational chink in the armour of Antipodean Tall Poppy culture.  A recognition in youth circles that individualism, entrepreneurialism or overt displays of success no longer contravene the right to belong.   Here fluoro codes a kind of collective individualism.


MANIFESTO:  The conspicuous absence of fluorescence from classical art (to be fair, fluorescent paint was only conceived in the 1930s), and its growing incorporation into the contemporary scene (e.g. Archibald prize winner, Adam Cullen’s controversial work) highlights the power of day-glo to disrupt convention and to earmark acts of transgression.  This is rooted in a historical association between fluoro and rebellion: 90s rave party glow sticks, the death-head lunatics in Batman Forever and the anarchic punk of Rubella Ballet, all delivering fat doses of day-glo and inciting us to rise up in the urban malaise.  In this light, fluoro is a handy visual mantra for youth agitators, serving as muse, catalyst and weapon.  In rude health, an orange fluoro blouse phatically arrests the gaze of innocent bystanders and, on a good day, conatively precipitates protest (averting the eyes, mental scorn, polite tutting, wild sarcasm …).  This consolidates the wearer’s role as outlaw and plots them in opposition to conservative aesthetes, critics and would be oppressors.

DayGlo4IRREPRESSIBLE VIBRANCY & A MATURING RELATIONSHIP WITH REALNESS:  The sheer visual physicality of fluorescence – its uncompromising capacity to excite the eye – can also lend brands and consumers brutal cut through in an era where bland Apple minimalism and the dull, earthy tones of the organic and real food movements dominate the aesthetic register.  Shopping for natural or healthier alternatives in the supermarket, we’ve been bogged in a pious quagmire of squalid browns, reproachfully scratchy cardboards and the wiry evil of burlap (a hair shirt for your sins?).  However, brands like Kiehl’s and Nudie successfully leverage fluorescence as an index (and icon) of the vitality of nature, transmuting some of its raw photosynthetic power or feel-good emotional vibrancy.  Emitting radiation (light) at a higher frequency (energy) than that absorbed, fluoro packs literally bombard the eye whilst promising to wake us up with a natural burst of energy.  In the wake of brands like these, the discourse of natural emergently shifts from atonement, renunciation and miserliness to exuberance, vitality and abundance.  Fluoro packaging has a semiotic field day, symbolising rebellion against the worthy brown dogma, whilst channelling its alternative via mimicry and direct action.


PRO-ACTIVITY & BLINDING OPTIMISM:  The earlier onset of fluoro culture in New Zealand relative to Australia mirrors the economic gap between the two nations.  Hit harder by the latest wave of economic turmoil, New Zealand youth appropriated fluorescence en masse as a symbol of counter-cultural optimism and proactivity in a climate of fiscal nay saying.  Fluorescent goods helped them to summon the playfulness, excess and abandon of 80s day-glo fashion or the gay naivety of fluoro kids toys, carving out an emotional solace beneath dark economic clouds.  Merchants also got in on the act by daubing shop fronts and interiors with day-glo paint, unwittingly evoking corporate neon signage that blazes from the high rises of urban power centres; a message of economic might to quell consumer jitters.  

DayGlo5CHROMO SOLIDARITY:  Social media has undeniably fractured the consumer landscape, empowering a degree of personal experimentation that was hitherto inaccessible to the herd.  An infinity of digital blogs feed a kaleidoscope of hyper-personalised pursuits: from tea ceremony to dogging.  But fluorescence entered this heavily splintered world and brought a lick of agreement.  Appropriated by legions of youth, fluoro fast became a signifier of tribal solidarity, not dissimilar perhaps to the visual language of bioluminescent jellyfish.  Summoning a heady mix of optimism, transgression and unabashed playfulness, day-glo love united a generation coming of age.

© Rob Engels 2013

Posted in Art & Design, Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Fuzzy Sets, Making Sense | No Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Friday, March 23rd, 2012


There are many different coding schemes to collect and discern semiotics, and included in that is my METTA method created as part of my research on nonverbal communication. You can decide the value of METTA after reading [here]. As important as a coding scheme is, I have yet to find one that is complete and encompasses the entire semiosphere (the ‘signs’ that are all around us) that at the same time is not overbearing and time consuming. 

Sure, for example, METTA helps identify all the nonverbal signs but even this is incomplete for a thorough analysis when used solely for denoting specific (digital) or variations (analog) of nonverbal cues and elements. Simply denoting the sign, a gesture for example, is a start but by no means an end. The connotation of the sign, the gesture in this case, is necessary for a full understanding. Luckily for me, Jakobson is in my corner with this as he states, “It is not enough to know the code in order to grasp the message… you need to know the context” (Chandler 2002, 182).

The 3 C’s compliments the METTA method the study of semiotics and nonverbal communication. The 3 C’s represents Clusters, Congruence, and Context. Combining this analysis along with other coding such as Morris’s Model (as discussed here) or METTA will help a semiotician understand all nonverbal signs that are present during an interact.

Clusters: Although identifying, or denoting, individual nonverbal signs is important, realizing they do occur in a vacuum and contrastly exist in conjuction with other nonverbal signs contributes to a proper analysis. An example includes determining someone is uncomfortable not solely on lack of eye contact but in addition the shoulders are slumped, the person is fidgeting with their wedding ring, and uttering repeated “umms” while answering a question.

Congruence: Something important for people interested in the semiotics of nonverbal communication is the words spoken. Yes, nonverbal communication research explores the role of all the various nonverbal elements and cues but it does not do so at the expense of the verbal content. Congruence reminds the semiotician to consider the nonverbal actions and elements along with the words being spoken. 

An example of congruence is stating you are willing to help someone with an assignment and you move your seat closer to them to look over the work they had already done. Here, your words of offering assistance are congruent with your movement.

An example of incongruence is when asking someone if they are upset and they respond “I’m fine,” however their statment is in a sharp, quick tone; their brows are tense as are they lips; while their arms are crossed across their chest. 

Do you think they are “fine”? 

Most of us have heard the statement that over 90% of communication is nonverbal, right (read more on this here)? It is true, however in certain situations. It it is referring to situations like the example I just provided- where the spoken words are not congruent with the person’s nonverbal actions. In situations like these, the nonverbal actions consistently tend to be more truthful. 

Context: The context involves the environment the interaction is taking place as well as the history between the people, and the power structure. Context can give the same gesture, say finger pointing two completely different meanings. In one context, it can be part of anger or scolding, while in another it can represent acknowledging someone. See the photo below and I would bet, regardless of culture, you can differentiate between the two.

The 3 C’s of nonverbal communication helps provide a research and anyone who is interested understanding nonverbal communication the meaning and importance of nonverbal cues and elements. It helps prevents premature and incorrect conclusions being made as it allows you to look at all the ‘parts’ and see a more accurate ‘whole.’ 

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Posted in Americas, Australasia, Experts & Agencies, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

More cruey, more cuitey

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

The white ‘Raw Bloke’, the Aussie bushman, the tough man is a’dying in Australia. At the same time Australia is leading and impacting on global ‘sophisticated society’ in terms of culinary influence such as fusion cooking. In fact – I’d argue stereotypes of Ozzie aren’t enough – the bushman is much more bushman and the urban male much more urban.

Why is the ‘pure, white’ bush bloke culture dying? There are a variety of reasons – immigration from Asia, (Australia is more multicultural) rural depopulation and lastly the money is flowing to the town not the country.

Australian bush boxing is an iconic example of this dying culture but it is not going without a fight.  The legend Fred Brophy has “been bitten by snakes, shot by a double barrelled gun, had mi’ face imploded by a knuckle duster but I’ve achieved mi’ dream of having a boxing tent that goes around the outback…it’s a tradition that goes way back to the original miners…”

The basic idea is the tent turns up and anyone can challenge a professional fighter. (6-10 fighters tour with the tent) Women box women. it’s not just a man’s game. 

At Birdsville, NSW (population 150) the annual boxing tent is the highlight of the outback calendar with 1000’s of people flying in for the celebration of beer, boxing and BBQ. As attendees say “It’s the event of the outback year”; others go further “I live for Birdsville”.

Recently Fred was awarded the Order of Australia (OAM) for his services to Birdsville and for keeping an icon of Australia alive.

The ‘bush word’ for food is “tucker”. Australia used to pride itself on producing simple “tucker,” it was a badge of authenticity, honesty and equality at least up until the mid 80’s. A BBQ epitomised “tuckerness”. And yet it was Australian chefs who invented the concept of fusion food (starting with fusing Anglo-Saxon and Asian foods) – in many ways this kind of food (at least until 5 years ago) became synonymous with sophisticated dining – it said “I know the world well enough to break the rules of purity of cuisines.”

So let’s think about this. Food the most basic and key badge of a society – is becoming more sophisticated at the same time as a significant part of the population is fighting for “tucker” survival. Le cru et le cruit are becoming more ‘cruey’ and more ‘cuitey’ a la meme temps.

Eat that Levi.

© Jake Pearce  2012

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Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Monday, January 30th, 2012


Open Your Eyes- Nonverbal Communication Is Everywhere!: Using Semiotics to be aware of nonverbal communication using the METTA method

Nonverbal communication is everywhere.  Looking at nonverbal communication from a semiotic perspective, and how each nonverbal cue and element is a sign, such signs are everywhere.  Yes, everywhere.  Juri Lotman calls all the semiotic signs around us the “semiosphere” and if they are everywhere and all around us, it is easy to lose sight of some and also over-emphasize some to the detriment to others.  Additionally, if these signs are everywhere, it is important not just for semioticians to study semiotics, but everyone.

Imagine you are watching a movie and then watching the same movie with the 3D glasses you see above.  Everything is still the “same”, but you see each sign differently.  You become more aware of each cue and element and each becomes more vivid.

My METTA acronym, as used for my research, does that for nonverbal communication- it takes the gestalt nature of nonverbal communication and allows the “whole” to be viewed through the parts that make it up uniquely in that specific situation.

 METTA represents Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance.  This article will briefly explain each through the perspective that in any given interaction, there are numerous nonverbal cues and elements present that affect both you and the other person(s).  Being aware of these cues and elements can help you engage others in a more accurate way you intended to communicate, as well as understand the thoughts, emotions, attitudes and actions of others.

Movement- Movement, or body language, is what comes to mind when most people think of nonverbal communication.  Yes, it is very important; however it is just one element.  By the way, if you think body language is 90% of the way we interact with others, I insist you [read this].  Movement includes: hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture, eye gaze and contact, head tilt, head nodding, and body orientation.

Keep in mind when studying and observing body movement, it can be both strategic and non-strategic.  This means, for example, some gestures are done purposely such as crossing your arms to display defiance, while other gestures are done unknowingly such as touching your neck or hair when nervous.

Environment- Easily forgotten and overlooked, this element plays a critical role during interactions.  The environment includes: the location, the room layout and design, distance, and time. Consider the difference of having a meeting at a coffee shop compared to the corporate boardroom and the different ‘message’ it has associated with it. Also, based on where you sit effects the situation too.  Research has shown that people tend to sit across from the other person during a competitive interaction and will sit side by side during a collaborative interaction.  Also the type of table is important- a study I conducted with experienced mediators, professionals who try to help find understanding and work out their differences, prefer to use circular tables compared rectangle tables.

Distance and the space between you and the other person have various meanings based on your relationship with the other person. When determining proper space and distance between people, think about how the last time you encountered a ‘space invader’ and how uncomfortable it felt. 

Chronemics, the study of time, reminds us how important time is based on length, such as how long or short th time is for which you are speaking.  Speaking and listening time length plays a pivotal role in developing rapport.  Consider the difference between making preliminary “small talk” first and going directly into a negotiation before even asking the person their name.  An important metaphor for time is TIME IS MONEY. However do not forget that it is not the only way time is perceived.

Touch- for the majority of my research in haptics, or the study of touch, I limit touch to shaking hands.  Consider the first impression, specifically during professional interactions, you have with another person.  Your handshake is part of your greeting.  Is your handshake bone-crushing or the other end of the extreme, flimsy like a dead fish?  Also, notice how some people will shake the hands of only certain people in room- think about the impression that has on others.

Tone- Yes, the saying “It’s not what you say but how you say it” is incredibly important but it does not mean the actual words are not important.  Research on voice tone has indicated a correlation between decibel level and perception of the speaker lacking confidence, being assertive, and being aggressive.  Tone variance and valence can be subtle yet a great opportunity to understand a person’s attitude and emotion.

Appearance- Often I say the first step to looking good is looking good.  This means putting a genuine effort into your appearance is important as research has shown our first impression is often made prior to speaking.  Dressing inappropriately for the situation does not just mean under-dressing but also over-dressing as well.  Wearing a business suit to an informal meeting could send negative signals just as wearing ripped jeans and thongs (that’s flip flops for my North American audience!) can. 

METTA has helped and still helps me not only with my PhD research but also in the everyday context including my law enforcement work, mediation sessions, consulting jobs, and other daily interactions. Just like when you put on the 3D glasses and the movie’s content doesn’t change but rather gives a clearer, more vibrant picture, the same is true with METTA. The interaction remains the same, however now you will be able to see things in a clearer way that allows you to encode your message more accurately while also being able to decode the nonverbal elements and cues that are present.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

Learn more about semiotics and nonverbal communication by following me on twitter: @NonverbalPhD

This article is part of a series for explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Network: Cathy

Saturday, January 21st, 2012


Heads Up Down Under

Where are you?

Since mid-August 2011, along with my husband and our two young chuldren, I've been back from UK in Australia and living in Sydney. Currently we are in Palm Beach, at the tip of the Pittwater Peninsula, approximately 40kms from the CBD (central business district). Renowned for being the rich and famous’ holiday home paradise, at the northern end of the surfing mecca strip that runs all the way down to Manly (40 mins south on the L90 express bus) and the filming location of TV soap ‘Home and Away’ – us Maisanos arrived all white-skinned, smelling of SPF 500 and sought out a reasonably-priced beachside cottage to rent that we remain captive in between the harsh sunlight hours of ten til four daily, enjoying Tin Tin on PS3. So we are not exactly rubbing shoulders with the celebs yet.

With the commencement of the property decline twelve months ago, many Aussies are frantically trying to free up second homes. Neighbouring properties are plastered with large ‘for sale’ boards and according to estate agent reports, are undergoing massive price reductions. For us though, the price tags still beggar belief and we soon feel as fish out of water and a long way from Hastings, East Sussex (our UK home).

Our first four months were spent just south, near Avalon. It’s different again. ‘Posh hippie’ best describes it. Educated, international, married to the surf and sand over 55 set with teenagers looking like the offspring of Hawaii’s watermen.   Intermingled with it, is the ‘Tradie Elite’ – the tradespeople who have cashed in on a decade of renovating homes all over Sydney. Once these two types wouldn’t have lived within a five minute 4×4 drive of each other, but they mingle well and with many people barefoot and/or wearing white floaty kaftans or sleeve tattoos on golden bronzed skin they look alike too.

So why the return to Australia?

There’s nothing like an ageing mum’s illness to call you home for one. The want for our children to experience being ‘little Aussies’ and for us to reconnect with our homeland after ten and a half years living in the south of England.

What have you been doing so far?

I would like to see as much of eastern Australia as possible in twelve months. Whilst yet to step back into paid work in semiotics and ethnography, the home schooling of life in Australia has begun. Travels thus far include Brisbane, Queensland’s Gold Coast, Canberra (the Nation’s Capital) and the New South Wales Central Coast. Yet to return to Melbourne, our home city, but feel that we will save the best for last! Tasmania is an absolute must too.

From your semiotic & ethnographic perspectives what are the immediate changes and continuities that strike you after a number of years away?

·      Lessened tolerance of others (‘she’ll be right mate’, ‘give everyone a fair go’ not as much as one might think – blatant racial and gender discrimination may reside within conversation; Australia has lowest employment rate among western world for employing people with disabilities; no solution for Asylum Seekers)

·      Strengthening of Aussie Dollar has evoked some newfound arrogance: some think the bubble won’t burst, others are less confident. (Beginning to tuck in on the spending. Retail downturn now evident. Brands feeling the hit now – eg. Surfwear giant Billabong stock plunged 44%)

·      The mining sector regarded as the ‘liferaft’ for nation’s economy (but poses serious risk for pristine environments where soil is described as so pure, ‘you could eat it.’)

·      Traffic congestion increase (families now with average 2 to 3 cars; cargo shifting off the railways and onto the roads) 4×4 is king. Driving is aggressive

·      Obesity figures now higher than the US

·      Kids Master Chef massive here

·      Indigenous culture taught in school beyond mere lip service, to understanding regional tribes and native language

·      Skin care clinics and pathology centres line retail high streets

·      Doctors’ consultations cost more! Rebates seem less

·      Surfboards made in China and sold for half the price of Ripcurl and outrage ‘true blue Aussies’

·      Fifteen year drought broke and rains are heavy, often lasting days. Storms are wild. Ligtning blinds. Thunder deafens.

·      Glamour set no longer reside in magazines’ ‘social pages’ but party pages, rarely promoting good causes and fundraising

·      More obsessed with home renovations and housing prices (irony in that Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby has just finished filming here – a story with themes of greed)

·      Twitter, Facebook obsessed (feels even more prevalent than in the UK)

·      ‘Frugal’ and ‘second-hand’ are not words we hear or see written much in articles

·      Seeking out ‘white heritage’ within Australia has developed (eg. is big; TV series ‘Who’s Been Sleeping in My House?’)

And your lingering impressions?

Warm skin; Passersby smiling; Fresh fruit shops; Divine mangoes sold roadside in boxes of 20 for £10!; Rarely feeling apologetic: ‘No worries’ rules in language; Daily ice-cream; A-grade cafés; Free parking still exists in places; New buildings and sculptures within new cityscapes; Minimal to no black worn by cityworkers; Bush blossom; Frangipani petals and Jacarandah blue petals as ground covering; No colds and flus in January and Selleys BBQ wipes products for cleaning the barbie!

Posted in Australasia, Culture, Making Sense, Network, Semiotics | 2 Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011


I often explain, for me, the most effective way to fully understand all the nonverbal communication elements present during a situation is through semiotics, specifically social semiotic analysis.  I describe the social semiotic approach to nonverbal communication as pulling back the veil of ambiguity of nonverbal communication cues and elements by making what is implicit explicit- connecting the micro cues (specific gestures and movements)  with macro cues (rapport, empathy, professionalism, etc.)
This type of analysis, as well as embracing Morris’s model (3 branches of semiotics: semantics, syntactics, & pragmatics) allows all the elements to be identified individually, collectively along with the spoken words, and what they mean can help each of us become more effective communicators regardless of what we do for a living.  Also, in my case, it allows me to be a more effective researcher.
Social semiotics explores resources (“signs” in most versions of semiotics), or action and artifacts we use to communicate (van Leeuwen, 2005),  to identify them as well as explore how they are used.  It is the concern of  “how” that is unique to social semiotics and what I argue is most effective for exploring the role of nonverbal communication.
Yuri Lotman describes all the resources, and for the purpose of this article the resources are all the potential nonverbal elements, as being in a semiosphere- all the space surrounding us.
One of the most poignant statements, and arguments for studying and understanding semiotics, and is given even more importance discerning it through a nonverbal communication lens, is from Chandler inSemiotics: The Basics (2010, p.225):
"There is no escape from signs. Those who cannot understand them and the systems of which they are a part are in the greatest danger of being manipulated by those who can.  In short, semiotics cannot be left to semioticians."
Nonverbal elements are present regardless if you know it or not.  In order to understand these elements, they need to be identified and a system needs to be created to understand there meaning.
Social semiotics emphasizes the importance of context and when viewing this from a nonverbal communication perspective, identifying the various cues and elements requires the context to have a focal point.
Returning to Morris’s model, proper identification of all the elements exists through using his three branches: semantics, syntactics, and pragmatics.
The image below lists the stages I use during nonverbal communication research (specifically gestures are shown below) to assist me.
Semantics. The first step is to identify all the nonverbal elements.  As previously mentioned [here], there can be many elements and it can easily overwhelm someone trying to identify them.  This can be the case for a research and even more so for the casual interested person.
To assist in this process, I created the METTA acronym to assist me (and you!) to ensure each element is accounted for.  METTA represents each of the nonverbal elements: Movement, Environment, Touch, Tone, and Appearance (read more on METTA here).
Syntactics.  From the nonverbal communication and social semiotic perspective, after identifying each element, the next step is exploring the cluster of elements being used together and their arrangement.  For example, while listening to a certain comment, the person let’s out a “huff” noise, leans away from the table, reclines into his chair and starts to fidget in with his mobile phone.  After asking him if everything is okay, he replies timidly, “fine.”
Pragmatics:  This stage cannot be completed without the other two.  This stage allows meaning to be established with each of the elements based on clusters and context.  Continuing with the example above, each of the elements, while being viewed collectively tells me that the person is not “fine” and that it is worth further exploring and asking the person how they are doing.
Something of importance to note is although it is listed above as steps, it is not a strict chronological order of stages but rather an interconnected diachronic process where each stage is being conducted with the other stages in mind and happening simultaneously.
This process of using a social semiotic analysis can be used to assist researchers (I am doing as part of my PhD) as well as professionals and anyone interested in being aware of nonverbal communication as well as being more effective at using nonverbal communication and understanding other’s use of nonverbal communication.
Examples of how you can apply this to your life is considering and asking yourself:
1.  What is the best place to hold a meeting or a place to meet someone;
2.  Are your actions, or theirs, open to discussion or closed-off and defiant;
3.  Does your appearance emit professionalism (make sure your socks match!); &
4.  What kind of hand shake do you use- do you shake everyone’s hand;
As Chandler mentions, an admission of any semiotician is acknowledging a semiotic analysis is just one approach of many.  For me, exploring nonverbal communication from a social semiotic approach has helped me with my research as well as during many trainings and workshops I have conducted in various countries.
I invite you to try (and let me know how it goes) as the best way to learning anything is to try it out, reflect on it, and share it with others.
 © Jeff Thompson 2011
This articles is part of a series for explaining semiotics and nonverbal communication based on the author's PhD research at Griffith University Law School.
Part I: Introduction to “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication
Part II: Semiotic Analysis of Nonverbal Communication
Part III: METTA- How To Be Aware Of The Nonverbal Elements (December, 2011)
Part IV: The 3 C’s Of Nonverbal Communication (January, 2012)
Part V: Applying Semiotic Analysis & Nonverbal Communication (February, 2012)

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | 4 Comments »

Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Sunday, September 18th, 2011

Semiotics, is the study and understanding of signs.  Signs are not limited to what comes to mind for most people- billboards, advertisements and storefront displays.  Rather, semiotics, and more specifically social semiotics is the study of how we interact and communicate with others by analysing the different channels of communication being used.  Often, many of these channels are based on nonverbal elements and cues. 

During any interaction with another person, we are communicating with each other constantly, primarily through nonverbal channels.  This is occurring through multiple channels and is both strategic and non-strategic (or intentional and unintentional).  This includes body language, voice tone, clothing and adornments, the environment, timing, and touch.

To envision all the different nonverbal elements present in any given situation, picture a black, blank screen in front of you.  Now imagine dozens of circles, of different colors and sizes, appearing and disappearing with the timing of each varying while consuming the majority of the screen replacing the black portions.  

If you cannot picture this, do not worry; just click the link [here] to see a video of what I am describing.  A picture is provided below as an example.

Now picture each dot as a different element of nonverbal communication.  On its own, it is not very significant and without it, it is easy to say it has little relevance on the entire picture.  For nonverbal communication, a single element such as choosing where to sit during a negotiation or meeting, or perhaps a hand gesture can be viewed as having a minimal importance on the overall impact of the situation.  

However, now start to take away more and more of the dots and the bright screen becomes darker and darker.  Similarly, ignoring more and more of the nonverbal elements, you understand less and less of what is going on. 

Just because you are unaware of all nonverbal communication elements does not mean they do not exist or their importance is insignificant.  Ignoring all the nonverbal elements can have a detrimental effect on the situation.  Equally, the same is true by embracing the other end of the spectrum- concentrating on a single element can have a dramatically negative effect by putting all your effort into analyzing one element at the expense of all the others.

In the coming 5 part series on “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication,” I will offer tools that I have been using to research and analyse various nonverbal elements from a semiotic perspective from a variety of situations including political discourse, news media, conflict resolution (mediation, negotiation, facilitation, etc.), and interpersonal, informal conversations.

 © Jeff Thompson 2012

I view this series not solely as way to share what has worked for me, but also as an opportunity to engage readers to hear about your experiences as well.  I look forward to comments and feedback. Below details each of the articles in the series:

Part I: Introduction to “Semiotics & Nonverbal Communication

Part II: Semiotic Analysis of Nonverbal Communication

Part III: METTA- How To Be Aware Of The Nonverbal Elements

Part IV: The 3 C’s Of Nonverbal Communication

Part V: Applying Semiotic Analysis & Nonverbal Communication

Posted in Australasia, Making Sense, Semiotics | 5 Comments »

Kiwi Vegas – “Bloody Pointless”

Sunday, August 28th, 2011


This is about seeing Las Vegas through Antipodean eyes. I grew up in UK and I’ve been in New Zealand for thirteen years; I have bias. My move to New Zealand gave me new software. I’d like to show you the value, often overlooked, of reading culture ‘superficially,’ to deconstruct and then take the ‘superficial read’ more seriously.

Kiwis (New Zealanders) have a phrase ‘it’s bloody pointless.” They use it with gusto and pride when laughing at what they perceive as pretence. (For example excessive displays of wealth or the sight of an LA woman carrying a dog in a handbag.) New Zealand’s early pioneering history was all about celebrating being canny, frugal, cunning and almost mean. It took three months for ‘the boat’ to arrive in New Zealand from England with supplies. Being adaptable and making things work was an essential life skill. New Zealanders are uncomfortable about shows of wealth or excess – even today national heroes are understated and All Blacks (the iconic New Zealand rugby team) are often seen as ‘wooden’.

So as a by now cultural if not ethnic New Zealander, I look at Vegas for the first time and say “ it is big and mad, a party town designed for no reason in particular.”  I say the casinos are insane and all those clichés seem true. The place is like the postcard – what a pleasant change. In fact, it is more extreme when you get there – the signs are bigger, the scale is bigger and there are more people. A Kiwi read would be: “it’s even more flash than I thought””. To the average New Zealander the excess compared to the down to earth nature of home seems unnecessary, ridiculous, alien – yet irresistible.

As a semiotician one looks at Vegas and quickly makes some simple observations. I am not going to say anything revolutionary or challenging, Rather I want to remind us of what Vegas means to many of us.

Vegas is magic at many levels: money magic, impossible civilisation, the deification of money and the cult of the celebrity. We are used to working for money; as a result instant wealth is magical. Vegas means impossible civilisation, an ‘unplace’ place – an urban oasis in the desert. Vegas means everyday opulence. The sheer scale of the copies of global symbols (e.g. a third scale model of the Eiffel Tower) and the size of the casinos is abnormal and yet I got used to it. Vegas appears to deify money. The casinos use signs that remind us of Greek temples. They mimic an archutectural design language of authority. Vegas is also awash with celebrities and celebrity status. An anchor for all of this is gold – as internal decor signature for casinos and symbol for winning big.

For New Zealanders gold has different cultural connotations, which can help us understand their perception of Vegas as “bloody pointless”. “Good as gold”, for Kiwis, communicates the trustworthy, steady, everyday nature of gold as something that was part of the early society of mining towns. The phrase is often to compliment someone who does what they say. “I’ve done X”, reply “Good as Gold.”  New Zealand, like parts of the West Coast of America, had a gold rush.  In the early mining days gold was to be trusted in a hostile world. Early mining museums portray the extremely difficult circumstances early miners endured in mining settlements in and around Arrowtown. It appears the idea of gold as glamour or striking gold never took hold as strongly in New Zealand society. (Look, for example, at

Hopefully the superficial Kiwi response “it’s bloody pointless” has more significance for you now. At the same time this short phrase summarises so much depth for New Zealanders, who communicate much with so little. Kiwiss aren’t ones for complex wordplay which can be taken to indicate that they aren’t as ‘deep’. it’s fair to say this stereotype of Antipodeans as more basic, at some level, holds true for most Western cultures. And the male language of behaviour in New Zealand is indeed about a doing which is much more important than saying. Many New Zealand men, for example, ‘do friendship’ rather than ‘say it’ – more Peircean groundedness than Saussurean arbitrary signification.

Western culture encodes at many levels an insidious mutually exclusive opposition between the ‘basic’ and the ‘deep’, privileging the latter term, But ‘basic’ or ‘superficial’ is a different kind of semiotic language – and it takes a time to understand.

Winner of the Hugo Boss Art Prize Hans Peter Feldman standing in front of $100,000 pinned to gallery walls

At a macro level, I have a hunch that the meaning of money is evolving as it becomes less tangible. So the idea of Vegas being pointless, at some level, means money is pointless. (Vegas = Gold = Money.)  George Ng commented on the Linked In Semiotic Thinking Group that Graeber turns the history of money on its head. Unlike the way economists view history, where most accept that first come barter,then money, and later credit, Graeber's contention is credit existed first then came money as a means to break up credit into smaller parts, which then led to social practice of bartering.

Since first developing these thoughts I’ve become aware of a company setting up a global barter system ( to make use of the idle excessive resource available to companies globally. It could be said that if they succeed they are changing the meaning of bartering from something done in Moroccan markets to something more corporate and respectable. Money will be replaced by the true direct measure of the resources themselves. If that happens, we face a new world order and money, truly will be pointless and perhaps Kiwis will have the last laugh on Vegas. “Money will be bloody pointless”. But what resource will winning casino chips get you there? Don’t we just replace one currency with another?

© Jake Pearce  2011

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Global/Local, Making Sense, Semiotics | No Comments »

Brazil Mash-Up: Australasia

Monday, January 31st, 2011


Outside Brazil, we must remember, Brazilianness always exists in relation to the identity or identities people live out in the host culture. Comparisons and contrasts, mirroring or symbolizing something we lack – and aspire to or not, as the case may be.  For a third party national, the words Bondi and Copacabana may both conjure up images of sun, play, lifestyle and youthful vitality that suggest a good deal of common ground between Brazil and Australasia. Jake Pearce, a UK national with many years’ experience living and working down under, suggests we might want to think differently…    

From an Antipodean perspective there is a sense that emotion and passion are dangerous. Their place is on the sports field and leakage into mainstream life is implicitly dangerous. Now in a global context, this viewpoint is anachronistic but it is no accident that Russell Crowe has been parodied by Homer Simpson et al as being such a bruiser. He was brilliant at the part, something which a metrosexual Brad Pitt in Troy might learn from.

Why is this relevant? The reason is largely because the idea of Brazilianness is so far inside a bubble marked ‘Latin’ that it is hard to tear the two apart – this needs some qualification.

The most aspiring place to go on holiday from here (Australia/New Zealand) is either France or Italy. Having lived here so long, I can see why. From a European perspective, the stereotypical Antipodean runs off to get some European ‘culture’. Of course there is an element of that, however Antipodean design, taste and ‘sophistication’ has moved from halting adolescence to early young adulthood. Antipodeans now go to France and Italy to marvel at the differences rather than wishing to be a derivative form of something they cannot be. At one time there was a certain elite, liberal intellectual class that bastioned itself in a castle marked ‘we are not like our fellow Australians and New Zealanders’ and worked hard at being more European than European. That was the 1960s and '70s.

For Antipodeans it is the behaviour that ultimately is intoxicating more than the manifest culture. How do men freely be men wearing handbags and kissing? To a European – going to Africa or having a long spell in the bush over here in Australasia is a safari. To Antipodeans – ‘we’ (and I include myself in that as I can use their lens) go on safari to marvel at the European zoo of human behaviours marked – hugging, talking rather than doing, using long language to describe the importance of friendship(s) rather than simply helping them repaint their garage.

At a fundamental level passion here is earmarked with suspicion. The pioneering male of New Zealand or tough man of the past is still very much in the latent culture – why else does sport play such a big role. And to be frank – being emotional in a new pioneering culture can be damaging. Psychologists here talk about the generation who went to both the first and second wars – it is and was ‘well accepted that they were tough soldiers and they were sent to the worse spots by Churchill’. This typifies the relationship between Antipodean countries and the UK – yes they are proud that they were tough but ultimately suspect they were used.

The suppression of emotions is known to be an adaptive state now – the ‘wooden male’ stereotype is in fact an adaptation to deal with hardship.  This ‘syndrome” (it has a name but I have forgotten it) is often cited by psychologists that in the post war period men here could not be fathers because they did not know how to. The ‘wooden’ male was carried and passed on to the Boomers as a role model and it is only now, in fact, that we see metrosexuality blossoming here. However all things are relative.

What has all this to do with Brazil?

The perception of Brazil here is very superficial. There are very few obvious signifiers and signs. It is rarely in the news or our magazines. Nor is Brazil a big tourist destination for this part of the world.

At a superficial latent level there are many similarities much more in Australia than New Zealand primarily based around the beach, being laid back, looking beautiful – and implicit beach sexuality. (Toplessness in Australian beaches as you know is common.) There are Brazilians here working – in ski resorts and on Opportunity Enterprises – but beyond that the imagery and semiotic depth is minimal. In Australia and New Zealand Brazil is known for its love of football – and there is a superficial parallel with New Zealand being the ‘Brazil of Rugby’. At a rational level the ‘love of sport’ might be seen as a parallel if people thought about it but football vs the dominance of rugby, in many respects, typifies the difference(s) between this side of the world and Europe.

Brazil is part of a ‘common and alien’  language of passion – perceived to connect with ‘Latin’ European countries. Here this is best typified by the carnivals which Brazil is famous for. In Victorian England – frivolity and play were confined and tamed in the many parks where the ‘common classes could pursue leisurely activity in an orderly way.’ The same is true here – the kind of spontaneous, combustible passion which Brazil is famous for is confined to a few moments in the Sydney Mardi Gras and Melbourne’s ‘Big Day OUT’ annual music festival.

In New Zealand, with its Presbetyrian/Scottish heritage, and certainly in ‘middle New Zealand’ Brazil is regarded as being so different it is not threatening.

In summary I would say Antipodeans find Brazil fundamentally puzzling. I should add with alacrity that this is largely unspoken. It is demonstrated in behaviours towards Latin culture in general. From a European perspective I would describe it as follows. It is like going to a live theme park, where you are trying to understand how it came to be like this and how you are connected to it. Consider finding a fragment of an alien spaceship with the words “Graham Norton”* on the side, Brazil is something like that. How did that get there and how come I can recognise something about it?

© Jake Pearce 2011

* An Irish comedian enormously popular in UK whose style of comedy (ironically exaggerated gay naughtiness) would probably not travel well outside emotionally repressed Anglo-Saxon cultures. For the aficionado of pedantic homoerotic aesthetic segmentations Graham Norton would be like the Russell Crowe of low camp.

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Nuclear Kitty

Tuesday, July 20th, 2010

Cleaner, greener nuclear energy is an emergent theme in the context of growing carbon and climate change awareness.  This 2007 article from Australia's "science of everything" site Cosmos looks at thorium reactor technology.  Thorium is safer than uranium and an abundant natural resource producing no byproducts than can be reprocessed into weapons-grade material. The visual interpretation of the nuclear hazard sign here is a semiotic tour de force.  Eco-chic, greenwash self-ironizing nuclear kitsch (or all these simultaneously)?  You don't know whether to stroke it, eat it or give it a round of applause.   

Posted in Australasia, Consumer Culture, Emergence, Global Vectors, Making Sense, Semiotics, Technology | No Comments »