At the start of every airline flight there is an announcement about seat belts, smoking, emergency exits, oxygen, et. al. I often look around to find no one paying any attention whatsoever. Some airlines beg for your attention, some international carriers use cartoon characters, but it’s all the same–done for legal reasons. If it were really for safety, they would demand you take a test before they took off. The activity is largely symbolic.

TSA is largely symbolic. There are people who could just be waived through, but we search everyone to some extent and woe to the person who has 5 ounces instead of 3 of shampoo, because that threatens national security. Perhaps we need this symbolism to feel safer, despite the inconvenience and invasion or privacy? I can’t understand why we don’t have the means to allow 90 percent through, given the fact we can obviously listen in on most private conversations these days!

We acknowledge red lights and stop signs, even in the absence of other traffic, because we attach immediate and serious significance to them. Smoking has declined because so many people understand the real hazards. Most of don’t trust milk that smells funny or meet with a green tinge to it.

As we attempt to provide value to customers and clients in return for equitable remuneration, perhaps we should be highly sensitive to eschewing the symbolic (a workshop, a retreat, an audit, another meeting) and focus on the truly meaningful and immediately useful (an improved condition, a solved problem, reduced stress).

Too many things we do by rote, whether the Pledge of Allegiance, the Lord’s Prayer, or the hackneyed “Have a nice day,” are merely symbolic and empty for many of us. But the actions we take to instantiate them as positive behaviors and improved interactions are the lasting impressions.

Are your life and career symbolic or meaningful?

© Alan Weiss 2013

2 thoughts on “Symbolism

  1. “Have a nice day” is only marginally less inane than, “Have a good one.”

    A comedian I heard several years ago broke me of that phrase: “Have a good what? You mean, like ‘a good colonoscopy..?’ Be more specific!”

    Some time later, whenever someone would say, “Have a nice day,” I started replying with, “You as well, enjoy the rest of your day.” Some people act as if I’ve just bestowed a knighthood on them when they hear it.

    You’re right: command of language really does wonders. 😀

  2. When people inanely ask, “How are you?” I sometimes say, “Well, my elbow hurts, and I strained a muscle somewhere, my hay fever has kicked in….”

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