What is it that makes an object a symbol? Probably, it is the widely shared perception of the meaning of a symbol that turns an object into a symbol. The etymology of the word symbol refers back to the Greek word σύμβολον. The earliest philosophical refer back to the Greek philosopher Aristoteles who deals with symbols when he writes about interpretations. Written words have become powerful symbols in the ancient world. We still have them all around us today. The interpretations of the words as symbols, however, may change considerably over time. Some symbols keep their designation and significance over centuries. Maps are well known to contain lots of symbols for roads, railways, tunnels or height. We learn about these symbols and interpret them in a specific societal context. Science is making ample use of symbols, e.g. chemistry. Different cultures define and apply their own symbols. Colonialism has been a form to impose symbols upon other societies. Throughout history symbols of power have changed as well. Each of those topics is an interesting field of application in itself. Young generations create their own symbols to establish a specific cultural identity or subculture. Urban spaces have been invaded by graffiti that tend to spread symbols as messages or symbols for their own sake.
Sociology has taken up the challenge to identify “status symbols” of groups of society. Possession of gold and silver have long ago been symbols of being rich. Maybe, even today such easily visible symbols play a role in how a person’s role is perceived in societies. Not only for priests etc. dresses have been applied as a symbol. Modern fashion is full of symbols as well. Interpretation of the meaning or even no meaning is an act of becoming conscious of the world around you. From the seriousness of symbols, we have come to the playing around with symbols as expressions of ourselves.
No matter whether we use the word, like water, we all know the chemical symbol H20. An image or art work using the symbol in whatever form will be decoded by us accordingly. However, the meaning we attach to water depends on the environment as well as specific context we (or the artists) are using it in. Cross-cultural competences consist in the awareness that symbols grow out of contexts and need to be interpreted accordingly. It needs a lot of openness, willingness to learn about differences and careful consideration in our everyday world to handle symbols. Doing culture is doing symbols.(Image of art work by Anderegg, Andi taken in 2016)

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