Even in professional communication, people are increasingly getting used to applying emoticons to their messages. It’s such a prevalent trend because being able to transfer your feelings on the fly with just a few characters is extremely useful in the fast-paced, character- or time-limited world of internet communication. But for all their popularity, emoticons have a flaw that is rarely expressed (on average) and that is the way different cultures see the same emoticons and their intended message.
In this digital global village, we truly are speaking different languages, although some are more similar to one another, than others. It’s a nonstop cross-cultural exchange on a scale never before seen in human history.
For this reason, social scientists study how people respond to emoticons around the world. Much of our online discussion is cryptic, expressed in likes, shares, signs, and symbols. But our use of symbols as communication shortcuts assumes they’re universal – well, that’s not the whole story. Westerners tend to seek emotion in an emoticon’s mouth whereas Easterners seek emotion in its eyes. In other words, we don’t all see glee in this glyph : )
A study published Oct. 24 in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examined these differences in culture and emoticon expression in three nations with varying degrees of internet connectivity and access: Japan, Cameroon, and Tanzania.
Psychologists from the University of Tokyo tested subjects on how well they recognized emotions in emoticons and photographs. Participants across cultures could read emotion accurately in images of real people regardless of race—but symbolic tech expression was not universally comprehensible,
The study subjects were shown photographs of happy, neutral, and sad Caucasians, Asians, and Africans and told to describe the emotions expressed in the images. Generally, participants accurately assessed the feelings expressed across the board. The researchers noted one difference: African participants tended to confuse Asian neutral and sad faces, “perhaps due to lack of exposure to the out-group [Asian] faces,” they suggest.
When it came to symbols, the scientists found clear cultural differences in emotion recognition. Subjects from all three countries were given a tablet, on which they were asked to scroll through a series of emoticons. They were shown emoticons in the Japanese style, with happiness, sadness, and neutrality expressed in the eyes; in a western style with emotion expressed in the mouth; and “smiley face” emoticons (pictured above).
The Japanese subjects fluently read emotion in emoticons, whereas subjects from Cameroon and Tanzania found emoticons utterly mystifying at similar rates. This was true both for urban and rural dwellers in both African nations.
Think about that next time you click “send”.