A Seminary Paper

If you ever wonder what I study, below is an example of a paper that I just completed for my missions course.  Hopefully, you will find it interesting and helpful also.

Note:  please forgive the writing quality…this is a tough week for me.






All human communication occurs through the use of twelve signal systems.  If communication is truly about creating understanding, then as communicators of the Gospel, we would do well not only to learn these twelve systems, but to also implement them in the regular course of our ministry.  This is especially important when we communicate across cultural lines, because the use of these systems can vary drastically from culture to culture.  If we are serious then, about creating understanding, a command over these twelve systems can not only help assure effective communication, but also fullness of understanding as well.


Identifying and Defining the Signal Systems

While most believe that communication is essentially verbal, as humans, we employ eleven other signal systems, all of which, intentionally or not, can communicate one or more messages to our audience.  The first is the verbal system, which is simply audible speech.  The second is the written system, which is an extension of the verbal system; it is a character or symbolic representation of the verbal system.  The third is the numeric system, which uses individual numbers to convey meaning, especially to express relationships, such as in mathematics.  The fourth is the pictorial system, which uses two-dimensional pictures and symbols to express ideas or emotions, as is the case in paintings and drawings.  The fifth is the artifactual system, which can be similar to the pictorial systems with the exception that it is three-dimensional; this can include sculpture, architecture, props, and the like.  The sixth is the audio system, which, while overlapping with the verbal system, can also include music, tone, volume, verbal cues, or utter silence.  The seventh is the kinesic system, which employs body movement such as gesticulation or motion to communicate.  The eighth is the optical system, which focuses on the use of light and color.  The ninth is the tactile system, which uses the sense of touch.  The tenth is the temporal system, which consists of three subsystems:  the demarcation of time, using time to convey meaning (e.g., timeliness can be perceived as being respectful or domineering, depending on the cultural situation), and as an orienting factor, whether toward, the past, present, or the future.  The eleventh is the spatial system, which includes concepts such as personal space, working space, and living space.  And the twelfth is the olfactory system, which refers to the senses of taste and smell.


These twelve systems carry two levels of meaning, rational and emotional.  Some tend to carry more rational information, such as verbal, written, and numeric systems while others carry more emotional information, such as spatial, olfactory, and temporal systems. 


Using the Signal Systems

In our consideration of signal systems, it is important to realize that we rarely use one system in isolation.  In an interaction as simple as a casual face-to-face conversation, more than verbal information is communicated.  Through volume, tone of voice, pronunciation, we appeal to the audio system.  Through proximity or closeness, we appeal to the spatial system.  With facial expressions, gesticulations, and body language, we involve the kinesic system.  Even if we consider a communicative interaction that appears as isolated as online instant messaging, we see that it is not merely an engagement of written systems.  We can communicate with emoticons (e.g., J, K, L) and activate the pictorial system.  Even the time it takes to respond to one another can engage the temporal system; a prompt response can be interpreted as either attentive or overly interested, depending on the circumstance.


Employing multiple signal systems at the same time is not only natural, but it is also helpful for effective communication.  When multiple systems are used together, we are able to retain more information.  For example, when only the audio system is used, we generally retain 70% of the information after 3 hours and only 10% after 3 days.  With only the visual system, we generally retain 72% after 3 hours and only 20% after 3 days.  When we combine both of these systems together we generally retain 85% of the information after 3 hours, but an amazing 65% after 3 days.  We see a synergistic effect when we combine multiple systems.


Learning theory has also informed us that not everyone comprehends equally through all systems.  There are audio, visual, tactile learners and the like.  When we communicate through multiple systems, especially in a large group setting, we are less likely to alienate segments of our audience.  Moreover, since some systems carry more rational information while others, more emotional, we can communicate with more depth as we engage both the mind and the heart.


Cognitive science has also shown that when multiple systems are employed concurrently, if one system fails or contradicts the others, the entire communication system does not shutdown.  Instead, we see graceful degradation, where we see only a slight decrease in effectiveness.  For example, if someone is speaking to me with an disinterested tone of voice, but asks inquisitive questions, looks me in the eyes and leans forward, and sits close to me, I may very well disregard his tone of voice and believe that he really understands and is interested in listening to me.  However, if all I had to go by was his tone of voice, I would be deeply offended.  With multiple systems, we can reinforce what we are trying to communicate.


In speaking of contradictory systems, it is important to note that we generally place more belief in the less-conscious system.  If I tell my wife that I showered, but she can smell foul body odor, despite my explicit communication, she will trust her olfactory system and insist that I did not shower yet.  In a more serious situation, if a female missionary enters into a sexually conservative culture and conducts herself in the most friendly manner, regardless of how many gifts or smiles she offers, if she is wearing shorts, she will not be welcomed.


This contradiction is not always undesirable, however.  In the case of Yassir Arafat, he risked assassination by publicly announcing his support for an Israeli state.  However, he felt the risk small since while verbally, he made his declaration, pictorially, Palestineans see that all official Palestinean emblems contain a silhouette or outline of Palestine; even Arafat’s head garment drapes over his shoulder in the shape of Palestine.  These ubiquitous images assure the Palestineans that Arafat has not forsaken their cause, and that his words are mere lip service to the global community.  The benefit for Arafat is that he is able to remain in power without threat internally or externally.


When communicating through the various systems, we must realize that they vary from culture to culture.  An obvious example is that while we speak English in America, residents speak Mandarin in China.  However, we see differences in the other systems also.  In Western culture, looking into the eyes of a speaker can communicate attentiveness, empathy, and respect.  However, the same posture in the Japanese culture would communicate aggression and disrespect.  In China, the smell of “stinky tofu” can cause a man to salivate.  However, that same smell to a non-Chinese can conjure up images of spoiled garbage.  Culture to culture, systems can vary significantly. 


Thus, it is important that as cross-cultural communicators, we learn how these systems work in the context of our target culture.  It would even be wise to focus on non-verbal systems more heavily than the verbal system, especially if we understand that less-conscious systems generally prevail in communication.


Test Cases

With this understanding of how signal systems lead to understanding, it may be helpful to consider how these principles work in the real work of ministry.


In the context of prayer, where generally the verbal system dominates, it may enhance the experience to involve the kinesic system.  Kneeling can express respect or homage; prostrating can express awe or despair; standing can express awe or joy; raising arms and hands can express ecstasy or longing; walking can express reflectiveness or be analogous to walking with God.  Using incense can engage the olfactory system, giving a person the sense that they are in a spiritual place.  Using images to convey spiritual concepts can engage the pictorial system and help a person pray with more fullness and concentration.


In preaching, where, once again, we generally view as verbal communication, much more can be absorbed if we engage other systems.  Using images or video clips will make a listener into a viewer also.  Using props effects a similar result.  Engaging people in a physical activity or asking them to engage in some bodily response makes use of their kinesic system and can make the sermonic process more participatory and therefore more comprehensible and memorable.


When doing visitation, again, it is possible to go beyond mere verbal communication.  Shaking hands, embracing, touching a shoulder or holding a hand are all tactile ways to communicate varying levels of care and sympathy.  When choosing clothing, matching levels of formality can make the person feel more at ease.  Choice of colors can also communicate information; black can show mourning or seriousness, bright colors can show happiness.  Temporal considerations can also communicate information.  How prompt you are, how long or how short you visit—these can convey very different meanings.



In order to create understanding, we must employ the use of the twelve signal systems. Especially in cross-cultural situations, understanding how to employ these systems can help us communicate with greater accuracy and fullness.  We would be wise, then, to be conscious about these twelve systems but also to learn how to engage them for effective communication.

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