How Emoticon Perception Differs Around the World

How Emoticon Perception Differs Around the World

Thanks to the internet and mobile technology, it’s easier than ever to communicate with people throughout the world. However, there have been drawbacks to this communication revolution, the biggest of which is emails and text messages are devoid of emotional context. People rely on facial and auditory cues to determine the full meaning of someone’s words; without those cues, misunderstandings inevitably occur.

That’s why emoticons play an essential role in online communication. As early as 1982, people had begun to recognize the limitations of text-based messages. During that time, Scott Fahlman was a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. Fahlman and his colleagues would often post messages on a rudimentary online bulletin board, similar in function to internet message boards.

Users of the bulletin board would share both humorous and serious posts. Unfortunately, they learned that it was difficult to determine which posts were which. Fahlman addressed the problem by including a smiling 🙂 emoticon with humorous posts and a frowning 🙁 emoticon with serious ones. These original prototypes served as the launching board for most of the more than 15,000 emoticons in wide use today.

If you run an organization, emoticons can help you add emotional clarity to your social media posts, website text, and all other content. However, if you’re attempting to reach an international audience, it’s important to understand that not all emoticons have the same resonance from culture to culture. For website translations and other forms of cross-border communication, understanding these differences is crucial.

Horizontal or Vertical?

Most Western emoticons like the smile 🙂 are meant to be processed in a left-to-right fashion. This mirrors the way in which Western people read written language. Not all written language conforms to this left-to-right standard, however. This is especially common in East Asian countries. In these countries, emoticons are frequently designed to be processed in a top-to-bottom manner. For example, a smile emoticon in an East Asian country would look like ^_^.


That said, not all East Asian populations respond to emoticons in this format. Trends indicate that the primary spoken language of a country determines which types of emoticons are most common there. For example, Twitter users in the Philippines and Indonesia are more likely to use left-to-right emoticons. That’s because English is already widely-used in those countries. If you’re localizing content for an overseas audience, make sure you hire professional translation services that understands these principles.

Cultural Differences

The format of written language isn’t the only factor determining which types of emoticons are most popular in a given region. Masaki Yuki, a behavioral scientist at Japan’s Hokkaido University, points out a key difference in how people express emotions in Western and Eastern countries.

According to his research, citizens of nations like America are encouraged to express their emotions freely and openly: Americans smile when they’re happy, and frown when they’re unhappy. As such, Westerners are accustomed to looking to the face for emotional cues. On the other hand, citizens of many Eastern nations are encouraged to take a more reserved approach to emotional expression: When they need emotional context, they look to a person’s eyes.

This point is critical to understanding why certain emoticons are more effective in certain regions. With a left-to-right emoticon, the character representing a mouth is what changes most often, while the eyes stay fairly consistent. The smile 🙂 and frown 🙁 demonstrate this. With top-to-bottom emoticons, the characters representing the eyes are more likely to change.

Once again, to effectively localize your content, you need to address these subtle cultural differences. Doing so will ensure you maintain a consistent brand throughout the globe.

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