White couches, light blue walls, wicker chairs, and soft lighting create the vibe. Nautical art decorates the walls, and seashell lamps and rope-covered picture frames litter the coffee table and bookshelf. It may be early February, but whenever I step into my friend’s living room I feel like I’ve stepped into a beach cottage on the shores of Destin, FL, far far away from the frigid temperatures of Lynchburg.
My friend loves the beach; she loves the sand and the salt and the water and the memories of summer vacations in the heat of July. To her, the beach means rest, fun, family, and it brings joy. I, on the other hand, think of almost drowning three summers ago.
The first Communication Theory I am applying to culture’s aesthetic is Symbolic Interactionism. Developed by George Herbert Mead, a philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, this theory demonstrates how language and gestures affect the ability of people to anticipate the feelings and responses of others during conversations. This theory is rooted in social construction, a vein of thought believing that the thoughts of people, their understanding of self-image, and their understanding of society and the world are all created through communication. Thus, according to social construction and Symbolic Interactionism, communication creates culture’s aesthetic.
Symbolic Interactionism divides communication into three categories: language, meaning, and thinking. Language is the words and phrases we use to convey an idea, and meaning is the definition we assign to those words and phrases. Thinking, the final category, is the process we go through to determine the meaning we want to assign to the language so that we can convey (or communicate!) our ideas.
When thinking of language, we must remember that contextual definitions stem from the mind of the speaker, not the dictionary. If my friend says that she is feeling good, she may mean that she is feeling “okay,” or she might mean that she is doing “really well.” My meaning of the word “good” doesn’t necessarily matter; I need to understand her definition of “good” to effectively communicate. In essence, our language might be the same on the surface (Category 1), but our meaning (Category 2) is different because our thinking process (Category 3) is not the same.
Clearly, Symbolic Interactionism affects our day-to-day conversations. If my conversation partner and I assign different meanings to our language, we will struggle to understand each other’s thinking. The danger in pop culture today is that we skip the process of critical thinking to assign meaning to our language, and we see our Facebook friends using inflammatory language to communicate controversial arguments when they really haven’t thought through the meaning of the words they use.
However, Symbolic Interactionism affects more than just our language; it also affects our understanding of aesthetic. Remember, aesthetic is concerned with the appreciation of beauty, and as noted above, people define words differently based upon their understanding of meaning and their thinking process. Therefore, “beauty” literally “is in the eye of the beholder,” and so each person views the aesthetic of beauty differently.
Let’s flash back to the beach-themed living room. To my friend, the beach-themed room reminds her of rest and relaxation, of time spent with family and annual summer vacations. She created an aesthetic of beauty through her thinking process and decorated her home to reflect the meaning she assigned to the beach. To her, a relaxing home should remind her of restful summer vacations, and when she invites people over, she hopes the beach vibes evoke feelings of calm and hospitality.
At first glance, this is a fantastic plan. Who wouldn’t want to create an aesthetic of beauty through a beach-themed house that evokes feelings of calm and hospitality? Who wouldn’t want to come over for dinner and immediately feel like they are on vacation because of her well-placed decor and soothing colors?
People who assign a different meaning to the word “beach.”
Now don’t get me wrong- I love the beach. My family did the annual beach vacation every summer when I was a child, and I had my own seashell lamp as a young teen. However, when I was in Hawaii one summer, I got caught between two monster waves and struggled to make it back to shore. Ever since that day I have been hesitant to go beyond where my feet can touch the sand, and the beach now reminds me of both rest and a tinge of fear.
When we decorate our homes to create aesthetics of beauty, it is important to remember that what may be beautiful to us may mean the opposite to someone else. As guests, think critically about decor before criticizing; chances are the homeowner worked really hard to design the room to his or her liking. Look for how the decor aesthetic reflects the story of the people who live there, and use your understanding of aesthetic’s meaning to know them better.
For me, the next time I visit my friend I plan to ask about her family’s favorite beach memory so that I can thoughtfully appreciate the meaning of the aesthetic they created. When you’re willing to use your thinking process to process the meaning of other people’s words, you’ll be able to better appreciate the beauty of the symbolic interactions around you everyday.