Emoticons are becoming increasingly prevalent in our internet and social media strewn social landscape, but how effective are they at conveying emotion?
This point is often made by those who find these somewhat silly symbols pretty ludicrous, but their flaws may run a little deeper. While prolific in our culture, representing a smile with J may not effectively translate across cultures. This may seem odd given that an expression of happiness is universal across cultures, but new research seeks to balance the role of universal emotions amongst subtle cultural differences.
A group of researchers led by Dr. Kohske Takahashi conducted a series of experiments where they asked participants from Cameroon, Tanzania, and Japan to identify whether various emoticons were Happy or Sad. This included smiling and frowning faces but also more neutral visages. What is most interesting is that these experiments were conducted among a wide swath of people, including hunter-gatherers, farmers, and city dwellers, in an effort to see how the emotional recognition would vary by more than just country.
While the researchers did not test it, presumably the vast majority of American respondents would identify as representing happiness. This is likely due to our culture’s incredible saturation with emoticons, and they sought to test something similar by contrasting Japan, where emoticons are prolific, with Cameroon and Tanzania, where they are rare.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Japanese respondents were much more likely to identify emoticons than their African counterparts. What is a bit more surprising is that, among participants from Cameroon and Tanzania, city dwellers were no more likely to identify them than rural farmers, despite the frequent use of social media in those countries’ cities.
The researchers declined to make strong conclusions about that, as they did not control for prior familiarity with emoticons. While this may have helped resolve the question, they found similar results across variants of emoticons which included Western versions, such as :-), Japanese versions, such as (^_^), and more overt representations like . If the problem were simply a lack of familiarity, it is pretty safe to contend that the generic representation would still be more recognizable.
Instead, Dr. Takashi’s team concluded with deeper considerations. They argued that, despite the universality of emotional expressions, methods by which to convey those emotions are what vary. A depicted smiling face may not represent the sender’s emotion but instead could simply represent the idea of emotion. The distinction would stem from one’s familiarity with using emoticons to convey expression online, rather than a familiarity with just seeing them.
Alternatively, there are a host of other cultural barriers in online communication. Many keyboards have different signs of punctuation, and many languages are formatted on the page quite differently (such as with text moving right to left or up and down). Finally, because many cultures focus on different parts of the phase, the expression portrayed in simplistic emoticons loses a lot in translation.
But this study also conveys even deeper notions. Despite the promise of universal basic emotions, there remain huge cultural differences. While I could detect emotional expressions among American and Japanese counterparts, this may get much harder with those from Tanzania, as I am not familiar with the nation’s culture or its people.
Still, we want to be able to read people from all sorts of countries! This is why, in addition to a people reading workshop, Humintell prioritizes our efforts to train you in cross cultural communication by focusing on actual universal behaviors, not those conveyed by a keyboard.