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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Color Cue

My eyes fastened themselves upon the old scarlet letter, and would not be turned aside. --Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Scarlet Letter, 1850)
The caskets come in a variety of team colors. --Anonymous (1994)

Peach and mauve are dead, he [Rubbermaid designer Andre Doxey, manager of color and lifestyle trends] said. Hunter green, slate blue and ecru (an off-white) are the shades of the day, injected into company products to give the customer the sense they [sic] are in sync with the latest fashions and sports logos. "If you have a passe color," Doxey said, "it means you are not in communication with the world today." --Jay Mathews (1995B:H4) 
Light signal. A material substance, such as a dye, ochre, paint, pigment, stain, tarnish, tincture, tinge, tint, or wash, that transmits a message about hue.

Usage: Color cues transmit information about emotions, feelings, and moods. In fashion, wearing the same color suggests a social tie, such as shared membership in a club, gang, pack, school, sorority, team, or tribe. States mark their national identities with colorful dyes affixed to banners, crests, flags, and seals. Color plays a special role incourtship.

Biology. "Among mammals, only the primates have acquired the biological machinery needed for highly acute color vision" (Jacobs 1995:196).

Blue and red, for women. "'If your boss is a man, wear lots of blue to the office--it says you've got brains. If your boss is a woman, wear a lot of red--it says you can take the heat'" (color expert Bride Whelan, quoted in Vienne 1997:150). 

Crayola. "Crayola colors may change (the line now includes 112 different shades) but their names rarely do. The two exceptions: Prussian blue (which in 1958 became midnight blue in response to teacher recommendations that kids no longer relate to Prussian history) and the very popular flesh (more accurately re-labeled peach in 1962, in recognition that not everyone's flesh was the same shade)" (Hoffman 1996:23).

Consumer products1. "The name of a color can be critical. One color on Ford's Taurus, purchased by older buyers, is called Silver Frost; the same color on the Focus, targeted at Gen-Xers, is called CD Silver" (Mello 2000:15). 2. "'Sales were so low [for the gray and purple-tinted, "Lavender Steel" colored 1997 Toyota Tacoma pickup], we decided to change the name to Cool Steel for 1998,' she [Christine Dickey, Toyota's color and trim manager] said. 'Orders immediately doubled'" (Mello 2000:15).

Greige. The color "griege," fashion designer Giorgio Armani's trademark, is a subtle mixture of grey and beige (Showalter 2001).

Evolution. ". . . the old idea that primate trichromacy evolved in the context of fruit detection and identification enjoys some current support" (Jacobs 1995:203).

Media. "The brain takes delight in an exaggeration of shapes or color it finds appealing, such as the intensely saturated yellows of Van Gogh's sunflowers, UCSD neuroscientist Vilayanur Ramachandran says." (San Diego Union-Tribune interview with UC-San Diego neuroscientist, Vilayanur Ramachandran [May 7, 1999, A1, A19])

Medieval knighthood. Because so few Europeans could read, symbols and colors (rather than numbers and words) were used to tell knights apart. Gold symbolized generosity; red, bravery; green, joy; blue, loyalty; purple, royalty; and black, grief.

Pink. "Psychologically, pink has been judged the 'sweetest' color" (Vargas 1986:144). Pink causes the hypothalamus to signal the adrenal glands to slow their secretions, thus reducing heart rate and blocking anger (Brain/Mind Bulletin, reported in Science Digest, Nov./Dec., 1980, p. 26).

Preferences. "Blue and red are by far the favorite colors of most adults. Green usually comes in third and purple fourth with yellow and orange vying for last place" (Vargas 1986:141).

Prehistory. Early evidence for human use of a color cue consists of a quartzite rubbing stone and a lump of red ocher, found at Becov in Bohemia, and dated to ca. 250,000 years ago. Actual use of the powdery red pigments rubbed from the ocher is, however, as yet unknown (Scarre 1993:39).

Primary colors. "People whose lack of education and/or low income provides them limited opportunities for emotional outlets prefer pure hues, especially those from the warm end of the spectrum" (Vargas 1986:142; note a similarity to primary tastes: see, e.g., BIG MACUsage and Neuro-notes). 

Primatology. "Humans, apes, and Old World monkeys have trichromatic vision because they possess an autosomal gene that encodes a blue light-sensitive pigment and at least two X-linked genes that encode red- and green-sensitive pigments" (Shyue et al. 1995:1265).

Neuro-notes I. ". . . one person--someone with a well-developed colour area (V4), say--may look at a bowl of fruit and be struck by the gleaming colours and the way they relate to each other. Another--with a more active depth discriminatory area (V2)--may be caught instead by the three-dimensional form of the display" (Carter 1998:108).

Neuro-notes II. Colors surrounded by yellow look bluer, while those surrounded by blue look yellower, due to a process called simultaneous color contrast.

RED
Moods: Hot, affectionate, angry, defiant, contrary, hostile, full of vitality, excitement, love.
Symbolic MeaningsHappiness, lust, intimacy, love, restlessness, agitation, royalty, rage, sin, blood.

Football. "Knute Rockne tried to stimulate his players by using a red-walled locker room, while the opponents were lulled in restful blue quarters" (Vargas 1986:152). 

Media. Dramatic motion pictures such as The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Lady in Red (1979), and Reds (1981) feature, respectively, hostile, sexual, and political meanings of redness.
BLUE
Moods: Cool, pleasant, leisurely, distant, infinite, secure, transcendent, calm, tender.
Symbolic Meanings: Dignity, sadness, tenderness, truth.

Media. Motion pictures such as Blue Hawaii (1962) and Blue Lagoon (1980) feature feelings of leisure and coolness associated with the color blue.
YELLOW
Moods: Unpleasant, exciting, hostile, cheerful, joyful, jovial.
Symbolic Meanings: Superficial glamor, sun, light, wisdom, royalty (China), age (Greece), prostitution (Italy), famine (Egypt).

Media. Motion pictures such as Yellow Submarine (1968) and Yellowbeard (1983) feature fanciful and light-hearted meanings of yellowness.

Visibility. Yellow is a high-visiblity hue. Black on yellow, the highest contrast known, is used on U.S. cautionary road signs. And, as a color engineer noted, ". . . Yellow Cabs are not as common as one may think. They simply stand out among other automobiles" (Vargas 1986:143). 

ORANGE
Moods: Unpleasant, exciting, disturbed, distressed, upset, defiant, contrary, hostile, stimulating.
Symbolic Meanings: Sun, fruitfulness, harvest, thoughtfulness.
Aviation. Commercial aircraft voice recorders (i.e., "black boxes") are painted orange to be more visible to searching human eyes.

Interior design. "In another factory, employees were in the habit of standing around a drinking fountain and visiting. When the soft green walls of the area were repainted vivid orange, workers took a drink and left" (Vargas 1986:153).

Media. The 1971 film, A Clockwork Orange, features disturbed, hostile meaning of orangeness.
PURPLE
Moods: Depressed, sad, dignified, stately.
Symbolic Meanings: Wisdom, victory, pomp, wealth, humility, tragedy.
Media. Films such as The Purple Heart (1944) and The Color Purple (1985) feature the tragic meaning of purple.
GREEN
Moods: Cool, pleasant, leisurely, in control.
Symbolic Meanings: Security, peace, jealousy, hate, aggressiveness, calm.
Architecture. "Black Friars Bridge in London with its extensive black iron work was well known for its frequent suicides. When the city fathers painted it bright green, they were surprised to discover that suicides declined by more than one third" (Vargas 1986:153).
Consumer products. The color green strongly attracts our attention, and is used in traffic lights, under the first and last steps of escalators, and in rented bowling shoes.

Media. Dramatic motion pictures such as Green Pastures (1936) and The Green Promise (1949) feature the pastoral meanings of green and greenness. 

BLACK
Moods: Sad, intense, anxiety, fear, despondent, dejected, melancholy, unhappy.
Symbolic Meanings: Darkness, power, mastery, protection, decay, mystery, wisdom, death, atonement.

PsychologyOur aversion to the sight of black may be innate (Thorndike 1940).

Media. Black is used in movie titles more than any other color. Films such as Black Fury (1935), The Black Hand (1950), and Black Robe (1991) feature death, and the darker meanings of black.
BROWN
Moods: Sad, not tender, despondent, dejected, melancholy, unhappy, neutral.
Symbolic Meanings: Melancholy, protection, autumn, decay, humility, atonement.
Media. Brown is rarely used in movie titles.
WHITE
Moods: Joy, lightness, neutral, cold.
Symbolic Meanings: Solemnity, purity, chastity, femininity, humility, joy, light, innocence, fidelity, cowardice.
Media. White is used in movie titles more than any color but black. Films such as White Mama (1980), White Hunter Black Heart (1990), and White Lie (1991) feature the darker, racial meanings of whiteness.

See also SIGNALChinese lanterns.

(Information after bolded italics copyright by Richmond, Virginia P., James C. McCroskey and Steven K. Payne [1991]. Nonverbal Behavior in Interpersonal Relations [2nd Ed., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall], p. 172.)


Photo of street scene (Bologna, Italy) by David B. Givens (copyright 2000)