What is it about?

Folk wisdom has it that a picture tells more than a thousand words.Yes, it is true that we understand more of realistic pictures from a different culture than of words in a language we don't know. But that should not blind us to the fact that we actually need quite a lot of background knowledge to interpret a picture. When we face a picture from another culture, the difficulties increase. We may be puzzled as to what it is supposed to convey -- or worse, we may think that we understand it, but may in fact misinterpret it! This chapter discusses such pictures, and delves into some of the issues that come into play in intercultural communication of visuals and visuals-plus-short-texts.

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Why is it important?

Communication nowadays often comprises pictures, or may even consist entirely of pictures or other visuals. Think of cartoons, advertisements, logo's, pictograms, emoji's, and memes. Although we live in Marshall McLuhan's "global village," much of this communication nonetheless remains rooted in specific cultures. It is crucial that we understand more of how visual communication is affected by the culture or subculture in which it was created, particularly if it "travels" to other (sub)cultures.


The chapter is rooted in relevance theory (e.g. Sperber and Wilson 1995, Clark 2013, Forceville 2020), since this approach explains how the interpretation of a message depends on who is its sender and who is its envisaged audience. The "meaning" that a specific addressee derives from a message -- verbal, visual, or otherwise -- can range from being fully intended by the communicator to being only "in the eye of the beholder."

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: Visual and Multimodal Communication across Cultures, October 2022, Cambridge University Press, DOI: 10.1017/9781108884303.022.
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