The metalanguage’s mechanism of communicating the whole via the part and the strategy of corporate communication

What is meant by metalanguage? Metalanguage is filled with tricks of “uttering” but is often accepted as “truth” as a result of habitual conditioning. It exists in the texts of theoretical discourse in the ivory towers of academic institutions, but it also lies deep hidden in the real-world life of human beings. It permeates our life.

New Zealand is often acclaimed as a picturesque, garden-like country. My wonderful memories of this beautiful country originate not from its fascinating landscape, but from my encounter with an old couple of New Zealand. A few years ago, outside a supermarket in Auckland, my car bumped into their car, and I was entirely responsible for the accident. Looking at the damaged car and at me, a traveler from a foreign country who was in great consternation and remorse, the old woman said, calmly and quietly, “That’s life.” The old gentleman added, with the same imperturbability, “Life is tough.” After we exchanged our relevant information to ensure that the insurance company would make all the necessary compensations, we bade farewell to one another, and the old couple, most good-humoredly, wished me and my friends a pleasant journey. As it turned out, our post-accident journey did appear very pleasant, just as the old couple had wished, because my friends and I started constructing our trust and all the beautiful feelings about New Zealand and about the people in this country based on our encounter with an ordinary couple whom we had never met up until that point. Although this old couple could not be equated with the country itself and with all the people in that country, they still allowed me to imagine about how the people in the country feel and react toward life - their philosophy and attitude toward life. The trust that they helped me build up about the country and its people is much more compelling and enduring than the trust that could be developed by any other possible means, such as the authority of the New Zealand government or the country’s material affluence.

On September 2012, two Chinese passengers on a flight from Zurich to Beijing had a violent physical fight due to their disputes over seats. The plane was forced to return to the airport in Zurich. The event triggered heated discussions among Chinese netizens. “You have disgraced yourselves high up into the sky! Couldn’t you two guys ‘save some face’ for your fellow countrymen?”1 “As your countrymen, we definitely feel disgraced and ashamed.”2 There were long lists of such similar comments on the Internet. Some media even bluntly pointed out that “every Chinese citizen is a spokesperson for the national image of China”3 and that “this is a damaging event on China’s international image.”4 To think about it, could those two Chinese passengers really put all the Chinese people to shame and disgrace? Statistically, we know that those two passengers could by no means represent all the Chinese people, but in reality, in the context of international discourse, the behavior of the two Chinese passengers is sufficient to allow people in other countries to associate those two people with the possible behavior of the rest of the Chinese people and to arrive at extrapolations and generalizations. The tendency to generalize based on isolated cases applies equally to what happened during an incident involving the disputes of sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands. According to some commentators, “The Japanese NHK reported that, in a restaurant in the close vicinity of the Bund in Shanghai, when a Chinese person found a Japanese person having noodles and speaking Japanese in the restaurant, he simply approached and assaulted the Japanese person. If the incident as reported by NHK was true, it only reflected the conduct of a limited number of Chinese people. But when reported by NHK, it would shape the Japanese people’s impression about the behavior of the Chinese people as a whole.”5

“Du bist Deutschland!” (“YouAre Germany!”) is a highly acclaimed publicity video clip aimed at projecting the national image of Germany. In this photographic narrative, executed in less than two minutes, the importance of individuals is highlighted to the fullest extent. Although every single ordinary person is as insignificant as a grain of sand on the beach, when placed within particular contexts, each individual becomes a representative of the entire country. Just as the words in the video clip go, “You are what is so wonderful about Germany. You are the other. You are Germany!”

Can a single individual or a small group of people represent all the people in a country? In the light of rigorous, logical reasoning, such a hypothesis might not be valid. But it is virtually impossible either that, in order to understand the whole, one must know each and every single component of this whole. Several cases described in the foregoing paragraphs precisely testify to an unquestionable fact - that human beings have long been accustomed to extrapolating about the overall attributes of an object on the basis of the individual traits or characteristics of that object and to conveying the full information of an object by presenting only a small portion of it.6 Two Chinese proverbs, that “one can know the explicit by seeing the implicit” and that “a fallen leaf tells all about the autumn,” bear out such a truth. In communication practices, it is precisely this pattern of cognition and perception that allows the meaning to be constructed, communicated and transmitted and evolves into another mechanism of producing meaning that is most vital in the communication of signs - “the mechanism of metalanguage.”

The phenomenon of metalanguage informs not only the process of constructing and communicating national images; the construction of the city image, the corporate image and the personal image also resorts to the metalanguage mechanism to establish new meanings, produce consensus of opinions and create certain myths.

In the present-day world where consumerism is ubiquitous, people are surrounded by a kaleidoscopic variety of new-fangled marketing strategies in their daily lives. Even within the limited space of an elevator, one cannot avoid being bombarded by the advertising launched by all kinds of corporate organizations. It is from such an infinite amount of fragmented advertising information that the image or the identity of a corporate organization comes to be developed and accepted, constituting a critical force in business competitions and dominating people’s judgment about that corporate organization and its products. In view of those factors, this chapter intends to focus on the construction of corporate identity as the object of analysis and to re-examine the mechanism of metalanguage via various forms of communication practices.

“The shaping of the corporate identity is like building a bird’s nest, using bits and pieces of whatever materials that one can lay hands on. Never underrate those bits and pieces because they constitute the solid building blocks of the corporate identity.”7

If this is the truth, then all those bits and pieces that one can find anywhere within a corporation, no matter how trivial they might seem, such as a facial expression or a minor action on the part of an employee, are sufficient to produce an impact on the overall corporate identity. Such a mode of perception, to speculate about the whole picture based on discrete details or to infer about the whole according to individual parts, is a pretty common pattern in our everyday life, although this mode is inevitably accompanied by partiality and incompleteness. This is because it is almost impossible for people to be exposed to all the component parts that constitute the totality of an object. As a result, they have no alternative but to extrapolate about the whole based on the information about the component parts. This practice has already evolved into a mental pattern which people have long become accustomed to, a pattern which is often called the gestalt psychology of human cognition. From a semiotic perspective, it is exactly due to the driving force of gestalt psychology that metalanguage’s mechanism of generating meaning comes to be established, making it possible for the new meaning to be communicated, for the world to be reshaped, and for the mythology to be told. In this chapter, we are least interested in analyzing, from the marketing perspective, the principles for planning corporate identity, the process of shaping corporate identity and the related evaluation system. Rather, we intend to use “symbol” as a point of entry to investigate how so many fragmented symbols combine to construct, present and disseminate corporate identity and to uncover the underlying rationale for the insightful proposition that “details determine the extent of success in corporate communication.” Based on this, we will examine how to establish effective relationship of symbolic signification in order to enhance the communication effect. Meanwhile, we will further propose the idea of crosscultural communication of the corporate identity so as to enable the audience from different domains of symbols to reach, when they are confronted with the same symbols, relatively unified understanding about those symbols and to avoid variations in decoding symbols in the actual communication process.

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