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Scratching my bald head: The language of symbols

Scratching my bald head: The language of symbols

By Emily Luscombe, Chief Client Office

This is the fourth part in the series – read the first , second and third parts. This article was also published in PR Week.

In a rare and precious window between treatment cycles, I escape to France.

It turns out that you can run away from clogged British roads and train strikes, but not the badge of the Big C. The Loire is far too hot to sport a head scarf. I tell myself it doesn’t matter – I will never see these people again, and it’s a relief to air the bald head in public.

The first reminder comes at an evening market. A magicien professionnel is modelling balloon swords. In broken English, he offers one to my 5 year old. “Merci beaucoup, Monsieur”. I turn to leave and he touches my arm. Puts his hand to his own (bald) head; then two hands over his heart, then blows me a kiss.

We don’t need to share a language for the message to be loud and clear. I’m with you – I’ve been there. It’s all the more special because no words are needed.

They say actions speak louder than words. They also say that words come cheap, which I’ve always had an issue with, being one who reverts to many words when one would probably do. However, as the receiver of many a kind communication this year, I’ve observed that it is pretty easy to fire off a text message professing to be “always thinking of you”. More meaningful to pen a card, walk to a postbox, invest in Snail Mail.

Don’t get me wrong, every message is appreciated. But it is the actions rather than the words that have really stood out this past five months. The friend who regularly posts me a novel that she and her daughter both enjoyed reading. Another who sends small pampering treats. A mum from my son’s school who drops off homemade sourdough loaves.

I was struck by the gesture of three senior colleagues to send me a friendship bracelet the week I was diagnosed. A gold charm on a coral cord – coral apparently meaning Luck. I’m not superstitious, but I’m giving myself a little license this year. The bracelet has not come off. It’s a daily reminder that I’m getting through this, that the people in my “old world” are rooting for me. And we cancer patients need all the luck in the world.

In brand communications we talk about semiotics – the power of signs and symbols to convey a message. There’s complex science behind it, and the brands who get it right fly high on the strength of those symbols. The Smile; the Swoosh; the Apple.

In our social media-centric world, symbols are replacing words as a primary form of everyday communication. The birth of a new dialect that on the face of it is far more practical, transcending every language and neurodivergence. You acknowledge a post on Teams with a thumbs up. You show appreciation for a LinkedIn post with a heart – or, when a colleague is writing about a personal struggle, perhaps a heart in a hand. Some argue this is lazy engagement; but on reflection, isn’t inclusive a better descriptor?

I wonder if we will eventually cease long-form writing entirely, and resort to engaging only through symbols. What an opportunity, for an industry that prides itself on being at the forefront of communication – assuming we can navigate the necessary evolution of the trusty press release.

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