by Maria Purcariu
Browsing through the readings provided for the wonderful introductory course in social sciences that I’ve been blessed to study this year, I stumbled upon an idea that stirred my interest in particular.
As it is a hand gesture familiar to me since I am a part-time die-hard metal fan, I noticed something below it that made me realize I have lived in ignorance for the past 21 years: I never thought about its second meaning. I got accustomed to this sign some time ago, as it is so closely related to the musical genres I’m keen on and I find it normal to be surrounded by people using it at concerts, in music videos, in the Dio poster I proudly stuck on the ceiling of my room when I was 14, and whatnot. For me, seeing the “horns” is as natural as brushing my teeth.
However, little had I known that if I go to Italy, making this hand gesture could cause me serious trouble. I am aware of the fact that various signs have different meanings from culture to culture, and before getting all theoretical, I have a simple curiosity:
Now putting my personal concerns and obsessions aside, I think it’s time to make it all sound intellectual. For I am majoring in Journalism and the inverted pyramid has unwillingly been my God in the past three years, I decided to structure my article using this top-down perspective, going from a practical example to the eternally frightening theory.
As you probably have already guessed, the book I shamelessly took the horns image from is on the topics of culture and society. While defining culture as a “tool kit” of symbols, stories, rituals and world views that are passed from one generation to the next within a group of individuals or a society, it is also described as being the “common denominator that makes the actions of individuals intelligible to a group”. Without having any cultural practices and beliefs to rely on, we wouldn’t know what to eat, how to dress or which gods to worship. In simpler worlds, just like I worshiped the inverted pyramid because it was something practiced in my group at the faculty, others use the horns sign while head banging at a heavy metal concert because the rest of the people there do the same.
These tools we need and use to survive are divided into two categories:
- Material culture: physical or tangible creations that members of a society make, use and share (e.g. trees, shelters, clothes, math books, drugs);
- Nonmaterial culture: abstract or intangible creations of society that influence people’s behavior (e.g. language, beliefs, values, political systems).
But where do the “horns” belong? Well, as it is a hand gesture and we use it to communicate just like we use words, which are obviously intangible when spoken, the horns sign could easily fall into the category of nonmaterial culture.
And what’s with this variation in meaning from culture to culture? Well, while cultural universals are practices and customs that occur across all societies, such as saluting, joking, cooking or having a religion, these activities aren’t done in the same way in every culture. Similar with the case of the horns, head nodding is a gesture used by people worldwide. But although in Western Europe and North America it means “yes”, Greeks and Bulgarians use it to say “no”. It goes the same with head shaking, being the exact opposite of nodding. So, when going on a vacation at the Golden Sands, be careful when asked at the Bulgarian border if you’re hiding something in the car.
* Intelligent stuff courtesy of Diana Kendall’s 2007 “Sociology in Our Times. The Essentials” and goeasteurope.about.com
More stuff by me: