Semiotic codes

Simply stated, semiotic codes are the conventions used to communicate meaning.

Codes can be compared to puppet masters that control the words and semiotic bundles that people use when speaking and listening. For many people, semiotic codes are largely unconscious, functioning mainly as limits to communication or as givens.

Some examples of codes might be the ready-made formulas of politics or the ordinary assumptions of any culture anywhere.

Codes work well in most cases when we do ordinary or formal things, but they inhibit thought and communication when we want to go beyond ordinary or formal interactions and behaviors.

Unconscious, unexamined, or strongly-held codes can be a disaster in interpersonal relations if one or both (or all) parties are rigid in their definitions and understanding of the codes being used. These are the sorts of conditions that lead to absurd exchanges at the dinner table and are one of the main reason most of us learn never to talk about politics or religion at most gatherings.

Gathering for dinner itself is a code. On Thanksgiving we are expected to break bread without breaking the code of silence on politics or whatever else your family can’t or won’t talk about. There is not much the individual can do to change this because the harder you try—no matter how good your intentions—the more it will seem that you are breaking the code, being aggressive, or threatening the (probably fairly weak) bonds that hold your dining unit together.

Many years ago, Charles Berger and Richard Calabrese proposed a theory about communication known as the Uncertainty Reduction Theory. This theory deals with how people initially get to know each other. It proposes:

…that, when interacting, people need information about the other party in order to reduce their uncertainty. In gaining this information people are able to predict the other’s behavior and resulting actions, all of which according to the theory is crucial in the development of any relationship. (Source)

The basic idea is that we humans need to reduce uncertainty in order to understand each other well-enough to get along. If we succeed at reducing uncertainty sufficiently, it then becomes possible to continue to develop relations.

The theory works pretty well in my view, but the problem I see with it is reducing initial uncertainty is much the same as feeling out semiotic codes, discovering which ones both (or all) parties subscribe to. As mentioned, this works well-enough for ordinary and formal relations, but what happens next? For the most part, most people then become trapped in the codes they seem to share.

What happens next can even be seen as sort of comical as people over the weeks or months continue to reduce uncertainty while confining themselves even more. Very often, if you try to go a bit deeper, you will be seen as breaking the code, disrupting convention, even threatening the group.

This is the region in which intimate relationships can be destroyed. Destruction happens because the parties involved are trapped in their codes and do not have the means to stand outside them and analyze them. Obviously, this leads to either reduced or turbulent speech.

I think the Uncertainty Reduction Theory might be extended and amended to include a stage two theory of uncertainty reduction. FIML practice would constitute a very reasonable stage two as FIML is designed to remove uncertainty and ambiguity between close partners.

Notice that FIML itself is not a semiotic code. It is a tool, a method, a procedure that allows partners to communicate without using any code at all save ones they consciously choose or create for themselves.

It seems clear to me that all established interpersonal codes are ultimately limiting and that people must find a way to analyze whatever codes they hold or have been inculcated with if they want to have truthful or authentic communication with their closest partners.

Most codes are public in the sense that they are roughly known by many people. But all of us have idiosyncratic ways of understanding these public codes and all of us also have private codes, idiosyncratic codes that are known only to us.

Sometimes our understanding of our idiosyncratic codes and/or idiosyncratic interpretations of public codes is not all that clear to us. One reason is we do not have good ways to access them. Another reason is a good many idiosyncrasies are sort of born in the dark. We muddle into them privately, inside our own minds with little or no opportunity to share them with others. Indeed, as seen above, to try to share them all too often leads to disruption of the shallow “certainty” that adherence to the shared code has provided.

What a mess. We need codes to learn, grow, and communicate with strangers. But we have to go beyond them if we want to learn, grow, and communicate with the people who are most important to us.

FIML is a sort of stage two Uncertainty Reduction Practice that allows partners to observe and analyze all of their codes—both public and private—in real-time.

Why is real-time analysis important? It is important because codes can only be richly and accurately analyzed when we see clearly how they are functioning in the moment. The “psychological morphemes” that appear only during brief moments of communication must be seen and analyzed if deep understanding is to be accomplished.

One comment on “Semiotic codes

  1. wsmarble says:

    What an objective piece, so brilliantly crafted. What a short journey it is from semiotic codes to their illegitimate offspring: prejudice.

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