The Ambassador of Semiotics

I heard Madeleine Albright this morning on Morning Edition, the fifth or sixth interview I’ve heard with her since Sunday morning.  Albright just released a new book and the ensuing media blitz has brought attention to the unusual tactics she used while pursuing her diplomatic duties in the Clinton administration.  In the new book, called Read My Pins, Albright discusses her tactic of using costume jewelry, brooches in particular, to send messages about the state of negotiations in which she was involved.  Albright’s articulation of her use of jewelry in this manner is an example of semiotics in action.

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols in communication.  Albright first began using her brooches to send messages in diplomatic meetings when Saddam Hussein called her a serpent.  Consequently, whenever she dealt with Iraq, she would wear an antique snake pin on her left shoulder.  She then wore all sorts of pins to signal how she was feeling about diplomatic negotiations.

Semiotics is concerned with signification, the process of using symbols to encode messages.  Communication of a message requires a second step, the decoding of the message by the receiver.  Albright’s audiences learned that they could gauge her feelings by looking at the brooch she was wearing.  Vladimir Putin told Bill Clinton that he could tell what the tone of a meeting with Albright was going to be by looking at her left shoulder. 

Semiotics doesn’t make it to the mainstream very often.  Albright’s deliberate use of the field is a reminder that the safety of the world might in fact depend upon diplomats being good semioticians, being able to correctly read the symbols and signs in front of them.

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