If you regularly read the Business Etiquette blurbs here on our blog, or if you yourself are an accomplished world traveler, you may have noticed that different colors have very different connotations from country to country (especially as it pertains to gifts, flowers, and clothing). Some colors represent love, friendship, and good luck, while others represent illness and death. In order to avoid misunderstanding and keep yourself in the good graces of other cultures, it is wise to know the multicultural meaning of each color.
Let’s take a few minutes to learn some color connotations around the world!
From country to country and from continent to continent, red has some of the deepest meaning of all the colors. There's a great disparity between the meaning of red in eastern society and western society.
In some eastern countries, such as China and Taiwan, red connotes good luck. In countries that follow the rules of Feng Shui, red represents good luck, prosperity, money, and respect.
In Russia, red symbolizes communism, which is why many in western society refer to communists or Russians as "Reds."
In western countries, like the US, red is the color of two separate holidays - Valentine's Day and Christmas. Red is important in regards to Valentine's day as it is considered the color of heat, love, and passion, which is why red roses are given as a token of romance. Red can also be seen as a symbol of "stop" (as in "STOP" signs and red lights) and danger. In fact, the highest level of the US government's color-coded alert system is "red."
Orange has an especially strong connotation in Ireland, where it is associated with the Protestant religion. Traditionally, there has been strife between the Protestant and Catholic populations in Ireland. In acknowledgment of this, the Irish flag contains three colors - orange (for Protestants), white (for peace), and green (for Catholics).
In countries with a large Hindu population, such as India, orange is a highly-revered and sacred color. Orange is featured prominently on the Indian flag.
In western countries, orange, along with black, is one of the colors representative of Halloween.
Yellow is a sacred and imperial (royal) color in many eastern nations, including China, India, and Thailand.
In western countries, such as the US and UK, yellow has several meanings. Yellow can stand for happiness, as it symbolizes sunshine, so a gift of yellow flowers can be used to brighten someone's day. It also stands for cowardice, which is why it is an insult to call someone a "yellow belly." Yellow also symbolizes "caution," which is why both "Yield" signs and the intermediate light between green and red are yellow.
In Greece, Egypt, and Myanmar (Burma), yellow is the color of mourning, so be careful with items of this color if you ever visit these countries. Likewise, in Jewish populations, yellow can have a negative connotation because of the yellow Stars of David which European Jews were forced to wear during WWII.
In western society, green has numerous meanings, which I'm certain many are familiar with. Green, the color of American money, symbolizes both wealth and envy. It also symbolizes earth and the "green" movement, which aims to reduce pollution.
In both western culture and in Egypt, green represents spring.
Green has certain religious connotations across the globe. In India and the Middle East, green is the color representative of Islam. In Islam, green stands for "perfect faith." As previously stated, green is also the color of Catholicism in Ireland.
In western culture and in Ireland, green is considered "lucky" and is the color of the Irish holiday St. Patrick's Day.
In China, green has an altogether different connotation than anywhere else, as the giving of a green hat to a man implies his wife is being unfaithful. Yikes...
"Blue is a boy's color!"
Although this sentiment may not be as widely adhered-to as in previous decades, blue traditionally has been viewed as a masculine color in both eastern and western culture. On the other hand, in Belgium, blue was historically a feminine color - but this has been changing in recent years. In China, blue is also viewed as a feminine color.
In some eastern countries, such as China and Iran, blue is the color of immortality. On the other end of the spectrum, blue is the color of mourning in many places, including Korea, Mexico, and Iran.
In the US, blue has countless meanings. If you are "blue," it means you are sad or depressed. Blue is a color of authority, and the police are referred to as "the boys in blue." Politically, blue is also the color associated with American liberals, whereas in the UK, blue is associated with conservatives.
Religiously, blue holds great meaning in several belief systems. In Christianity, blue is the color of Christ, and in Catholicism, it is the color of Mary's robe. In Judaism, blue symbolizes holiness, which is why it is one of the colors of Hanukkah. Finally, in Hinduism, blue is the color of the deity Krishna.
You may have seen a link Lionbridge onDemand posted a few months back to an article about Niger's remake of the classic Prince movie Purple Rain. There was only one issue with this endeavor - Niger has no word for the color purple. How's that for interesting?
Unlike Niger, other countries certainly have words and meanings for the color purple. In western society, especially in the United Kingdom, purple is the color of royalty. The royal family owns purple crowns, robes, and jewels.
In both western and eastern society, purple can stand for wealth and privilege.
In countries such as India, Thailand, and Brazil, purple is a color of mourning. Bearing this in mind, purple flowers are probably not a suitable gift in these places.
In the US, purple stands for bravery. The military award given for bravery is called the Purple Heart.
In Catholicism, purple symbolizes the crucifixion of Christ. As such, purple (along with pink) is one of the colors used in celebration of Easter.
"Pink is a girl's color!"
Just like with blue, the color pink has historically been assigned a gender - in this case, female. More often, however, parents (especially in the west) have been eschewing this stereotype. In Belgium, pink was typically considered a masculine color - but this has been also changing in recent years.
In eastern countries, the color pink symbolizes marriage.
In Korea, pink symbolizes trust. So, if you were to give someone a pink-hued gift, it would symbolize trust between you.
Pink flowers, especially roses, symbolize love and romance in most places. In the west, lighter pink tones also symbolize sympathy, so pink flowers are often given to the sick or used at funerals and wakes.
Like red, the color white also has varied connotations from culture to culture. There is a duality to white - in some cultures it symbolizes death, mourning, and unhappiness, and in other cultures it symbolizes peace, purity, and innocence.
In many eastern countries, such as China, India, and Japan, white has a negative connotation (usually, death). It is unwise to give a gift of white flowers, such as lilies, as these are typically used at funerals.
Conversely, in Ireland and many western countries, white has more positive associations. For example, a white dove is often a symbol of peace, and a white flag is used to halt war. In the west, brides traditionally wear white to symbolize their "purity" before marriage. Hospitals are white to symbolize serenity and cleanliness.
White also represents peace and happiness in Cherokee culture.
Black is typically considered the most ominous of all the colors. In western culture, as well as in India, Thailand, the Middle East, and in Judaism, black is the color of death, mourning, evil, bad luck, and unhappiness.
In Africa and to the Aboriginals of Australia, black is a ceremonial color which stands for age and wisdom.
Although black is seen as the color of death and mourning in the west, it is also seen as a "power" color which can be used to intimidate. Therefore, if you are doing business in a western country and want to dress to impress, wearing black should do the trick.
Brown has some fairly straightforward connotations across the board. In China and Australia, brown symbolizes earth. In the west, brown symbolizes practicality and comfort. India and Nicaragua have the most differing opinions on brown - in India, brown is a color of mourning, and in Nicaragua, it is the color of disapproval.
Here at Lionbridge onDemand, we can help with the translation and localization of hundreds of languages - but we can't help if you scare off a potential romance by presenting a bouquet of white lilies. Keep up to date with your cultural dos and don'ts by checking out our daily blog posts, where we will continue to inform you about technology, language, and all things international. Ta-ta for now!