What color is your suit? The importance of color in cross-cultural interactions.
By: Julie Parenteau, Ph.D. and Jennifer Alvarez
People communicate in all different ways. We use words at times, while our body language does the talking at other times. And in some cases, silence is used instead. Today we share a more subtle, but hugely important form of communication that can wreak cultural havoc in certain settings. We are talking about color. Let’s explore this fascinating topic in further detail.
Start by looking around you. What color are the walls in your office? What color flowers do you buy for your special someone to show your affection? What color are you wearing right now? How do poeple react to you when you wear that color? Colors are used in particular cultures to represent culturally specific ideals and values. For instance, if you were to walk into a formal interview in a pink suit in the United States, what judgments might be bestowed upon you? How might that be different if you were interviewing with a Korean company?
In much of the Western World, red is popping up all around us because St. Valentine’s Day is around the corner. Red, in that part of the world, represents love and warmth. This perspective also applies in the case of Chinese brides who typically wear red for good luck. To write a Chinese person’s name in red ink, however, means that that person is dead to you.
Red represents purity in India, but for South Africans, is used to show mourning following the death of a loved one. Red is also the color associated with Communism, in addition to Santa Claus and Satan. Interestingly, psychologists suggest that the color red has been used to stimulate brain activity.
Pink, a lighter shade of red, symbolizes trust in Korea. In Western cultures, pink is considered a girl’s color and often suggests femininity. Pink roses, on the other hand, represent gratitude and appreciation as opposed to red roses which represent love. Psychologists have found that pink works in suppressing the appetite and relaxing muscles.
In Western cultures, people often think of pumpkins and falling leaves when thinking of orange. In the Netherlands, orange is known as the color of royalty while in Northern Ireland orange is the color associated with the Protestant church. Orange roses represent enthusiasm, which supports studies that have found orange to be an appetite stimulant.
Green has several meanings across cultures. While it symbolizes money and nature in the United States, green is also affiliated with jealousy and greed, as well as disease in some Asian countries. Green is considered the color of Islam, but to the Irish is used to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.
Blue is the symbol of wealth in many Eastern cultures, but represents immorality or even death in China. For Iranians and Egyptians, blue is the color of mourning. Western cultures consider blue to be a depressing, sad color and talk about people who are emotionally down
as “having the blues.” Such thoughts align nicely with those of psychologists who have studied the calming effects of the color blue.
Photo courtesy of www.snailcream.co.uk
Purple, once thought to be the color of royalty across much of Western Europe, has transcended to the color or loyalty in Western cultures. In contrast, widows in Thailand wear purple when in mourning. Researchers have determined that purple produces a peaceful environment and may even be used to reduce migraine headaches.
Black and White
Thought by many to be the absence of color, white is associated with purity in Western cultures and black is associated with mourning. Asian cultures however, have a different perspective. For those in China, Korea, and India, for instance, white is the color of death. Therefore, gifting white flowers or anything wrapped in white paper is culturally inappropriate.
Because of the culture that we grow up in, we tend to view colors like those around us. As we travel and venture out into the world, our perspectives broaden. We may begin to see shades of color where there were none before. Perhaps there is a local name for a specific color that was not previously in your purview.
Understanding how colors work across cultures can help people interacting in multicultural settings to avoid cultural faux pas. When deciding how to dress or what type of gift to give, it is particularly important to take color into consideration. Something as basic as the color ink used to write someone’s name or the color of the paper used to wrap a gift can make or break a business deal. Think carefully about this as you go into your next international negotiation.
For additional insights into working effectively across cultures, contact the staff at Global Perceptions. Our professionals will set you on the right path!