What Are You Signaling?

Have you ever noticed that there is a philosophy to bumper sticker usage? Some people, more conservative types, carefully choose and place their stickers (usually only one) on a rear window or bumper. It often contains an innocuous message like, “My Child is an Honor Student” or “Share the Road” or “My Daughter and My Money Go to [the name of a college]” or “Support Our Troops,” etc.

Others, however, practically cover their cars with stickers. I have no data to support my theory, but firsthand observation suggests that these people are frequently of a more aggressive, even angry, disposition. They use their automobiles the way one might use a billboard. The messages, almost always of a political nature, are meant to polarize, inflame, and insult.

Why do we do it? Are we hoping to persuade others that our opinions are the correct ones? Do we really think that someone stopped at a traffic light will read our stickers and abandon their position for ours? According to a book on the subject, the answer is no. We have another agenda in mind.

Geoffrey Miller, the author of Spent, calls this “signaling.” I recently read a review of Miller’s book, and while I doubt that I would agree with many of his conclusions, it seems that he has uncovered what many of us know intuitively to be true. According to the reviewer, Miller tells us:

Being able to signal our characteristics is important because the perception by others of those characteristics affects their willingness to join us in all of the encounters and partnerships we undertake… You wouldn’t sport an Obama bumper sticker if in fact you were a McCain supporter, otherwise you’d end up associating with the wrong crowd.

The means of signaling are plethora. On the inexpensive end, there are bumper stickers and t-shirts; for the wealthy, there are luxury automobiles and expensive lapdogs. For example, a pocket protector or forgetfulness might be deliberately cultivated means of signaling others that you are (or think that you are) an intellectual or a techy; a ball cap may indicate that you are a laid back sports fan; while a Volvo or a Subaru could be your way of communicating to others that you are an environmentally conscious liberal, and so on. These “accessories” are seldom random, according to Miller, and we want people to draw certain conclusions about us from them.

Miller further argues that advertisers are particularly aware of “signalers” and target them carefully in an effort to persuade them that their products represent the best signals to deploy:

Do you want to demonstrate that you are conscientious and care for the planet? Buy our new hybrid car.

Do you want others to know how much you love your wife? Buy her this diamond ring.

Do you want to signal your sophistication? Let others see that you subscribe to our newspaper or magazine.

Do you want people to think you’re the outdoor type, adventurous and fun? Drive our Jeep 4 x 4.

Do you want others to think that you’re tough? Get a tattoo, a leather jacket, and buy our Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Considering Miller’s thesis from a spiritual perspective, one is inclined to wonder at the ramifications. Do we, as Christians, send signals that alienate the unbelieving? I am convinced that many Christians do precisely that. Instead of proclaiming Christ, we signal an avalanche of political or cultural opinions that have nothing to do with being a Christian. The point isn’t that you can’t have such opinions, but do you confuse them with your faith? Do you unwittingly communicate to others that believing what you believe and thinking what you think is what it means to be a Christian? There are certain non-negotiables, yes, but let’s bear in mind that living in our part of town, talking as we talk, and attending our particular church are not among them. Isn’t the Cross offensive enough (Galatians 5:11) without adding to the offense unnecessarily? I think that it is.

I would encourage you to give your bumpers and rear windows a once-over. Perhaps student readers of this blog will consider the messages on their t-shirts. And maybe all of us will be more thoughtful in what we say. It is one thing to offend for the sake of the Gospel, but quite another to simply behave like a jerk.

Image Credit: Ginny