Colors Mean Wildly Different Things Around the World

The internet is chock full of infographics and posts that explain the psychological associations of various colors to help people and brands choose the perfect hue for their product, logo, or living room wall. These posts are entertaining, but there's one serious problem with them if you're actually planning to use the information for any kind of significant decision: what colors mean varies wildly from culture to culture.

La Vie en Jaune

Take yellow, for instance. Most of us in America instantly associate the color with the sun, school buses, and happy emojis. It's cheerful, upbeat, and energizing. But if you paint your living room yellow in order to lift your visitors' spirits, you might run into problems if a Chinese or French exchange student comes to stay.

In France, "yellow signifies jealousy, betrayal, weakness, and contradiction. In the 10th century, the French painted the doors of traitors and criminals yellow," explains the Huffington Post. "In China, yellow is associated with pornography. When the Chinese term for 'yellow picture' or 'yellow book' is used to discuss any type of publication or media, it's in reference to pornographic images and websites."

Meanwhile, visitors from many parts of Africa or Thailand might think you a little pretentious. Yellow is associated with royalty or those of high rank in these regions.

A Rainbow's Worth of Difference

The issue goes well beyond just one color, though. Yellow is emblematic of the shifting meaning of color, but most shades have different associations in different parts of the world. Here's a partial list (or check out this chart for a really deep dive):

  • Purple: in the West, purple is generally associated with both royalty and spirituality, but in Brazil and Thailand, purple is is the color of mourning.
  • White: as any westerner who's ever been to a wedding can tell you, white is traditionally associated with purity here. However, "in China, Korea, and some other Asian countries white represents death, mourning, and bad luck, and is traditionally worn at funerals," according to the stock photo site Shutterstock.
  • Black: Americans tend to see black as either sophisticated or grim, but in Africa, the color is generally associated with maturity and masculinity.
  • Blue: Traditionally a "boy's color" in the West, in China, it's associated with femininity.
  • Pink: You're most likely to see pink on a baby girl or a sweet-shop sign in the States. In Latin America, it's mostly painted on buildings, hence its association with architecture. China didn't even recognize the color before western influences came to the country. It's still called "the foreign color."

All of this is fascinating as a symbol of humans' beautiful diversity, but while shifting color associations are a charming curiosity for most of us, for designers and marketers, they can be a real headache.

Legend has it that Pepsi, for instance, saw a dip in sales in Southeast Asia in the 50s when it changed the color of its coolers from dark to ice blue, which is associated with death in some parts of the region. EuroDisney had to pull back on the purple in its branding because many Catholic Europeans associate the color with the crucifixion rather than a fun day out.

The bottom line is this: if you're hoping to make a statement with your color choice — either personal or commercial — know that your palette probably won't read the same to folks from different parts of the world. If you're hoping to communicate internationally, you'll need to take varying color interpretations into account.

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Why is the sky blue? How does language influence the colors we see? Get the answers to these questions and more in "The Secret Language of Color: Science, Nature, History, Culture, Beauty of Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, & Violet" by Joann and Arielle Eckstut. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Jessica Stillman November 20, 2018

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