A unique lesson in semantics

Gas station attendant: Are you a doctor?

Me: Sorry, what?

Gas station attendant: A doctor... are you a doctor?

Me: No, sorry... (hopeful) Do I look like a doctor?

Gas station attendant: Your pin...

Me: My pin?

Gas station attendant: Yes. On your jacket. It says you're a doctor...

Me: Ohhhhh... you mean this? It's a Doctor Who pin! Do you know Doctor Who?

Gas station attendant: What?

Me: Science fiction! The T.V. show. You know, (waving hands) fighting intergalactic monsters for the freedom of all.

Gas station attendant: No, sorry... (looking confused) Is that all for you?

Me: Yes... that's it.


What if I had said am a doctor and he started asking me medical related questions? I wonder if he would've believed my fake doctor advice—all because of the pin on my jacket—if I chose to run with his misinterpretation of the text and symbol on my button.

To me, this was a prime, and hilarious, lesson in semantics—how symbols and words communicate certain meanings, and when those meanings get jumbled or misinterpreted, crazy, funny, awesome, or perhaps even terrible, things can happen.

Picture this: I pretend I'm a doctor and he starts asking me about how to treat the wart on his big toe. That would be funny, right?

But then picture this: I pretend I'm a doctor and someone behind waiting to pay for their gas falls over and starts hyperventilating and now everyone's looking at me saying this guy's a doctor! He can figure our what's happening! Not so funny, right?

I don't know about you, but I get pretty frustrated when I'm being picky about certain words and symbols and people say to me: oh don't worry, it's just semantics.

Maybe I am being the semantics police, but we do have to be very clear and intentional in our use of symbols and words and how they communicate certain ideas to others.

Of course, we can't control every symbol and word we communicate, but we can think more meaningfully each time we write the words we write, say the things we say, use the symbols we use, film the things we film, etc. if we choose to.

And if we work with media, we definitely should be thinking about the words and symbols we use.

So don't be fooled! The signifiers and signifieds we create and use can be powerful in both positive and negative ways, and the responsibility is on us to determine to the best of our ability how things will be interpreted.

Otherwise, I might start believing I really am an (intergalactic) doctor.