Differences in Emoticon Use Across Borders

Differences in emoticon use across borders: emoticon use can vary in different cultures.  Check out this post on facts to consider when targeting an international audience.

Today’s post is a guest post written by Sirena Rubinoff.  Sirena Rubinoff is the Content Manager at Morningside Translations. She earned her B.A. and Master’s Degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. After completing her graduate degree, Sirena won an international fellowship as a Rotary Cultural Ambassador to Jerusalem. Sirena covers topics related to software and website localization, global business solutions, and the translation industry as a whole.

Emoticon use varies across borders: learn to localize your message

Emoticons abound in the text-based communications of today, providing context for non-verbal communication in our emails, texts, and online forum posts. Just as facial expressions and body language provide cues for in-person communication, these virtual images serve a similar purpose when remote interactions occur.


The two original emoticons 🙂 and 🙁 are widely thought to have been created by Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at America’s Carnegie Mellon University back in 1982. Each of these simple symbols were intended to help peers and professors distinguish between serious and humorous posts on the university’s online bulletin boards and avoid ‘flame wars’.


Decades later, these two characters have evolved and multiplied into the multitude of emoticons available today. Given the varied interpretations emoticons have across the world, a company should employ global translation services for their use across cultural and geographic borders. In order for a business or brand to succeed in their messaging, every cultural nuance should be investigated and understood, including those pertaining to emoticons.  


Text Direction Indicates How Emoticons are Understood


There are two styles of emoticons: The horizontal ones, like Scott Fahlman’s original smileys (i.e. read from left to right), which are most often used by Western cultures; and vertical emoticons (read from top to bottom), which are popular in East Asian countries.


Horizontal emoticons often feel more natural to Western nations due to text being written and read from left to right, and the emphasis placed on the mouth when interpreting facial expressions. On the other hand, vertical emoticons which are viewed from top to bottom synchronize with Eastern cultures’ commonly practiced vertical writing and the custom of using the eyes to determine a person’s emotional intent.


However, it should be noted that the East/West partition is not always applicable. Some studies show a country’s spoken language has a higher impact in emoticon usage than geography. One example of this is the use of Twitter in the Philippines and Indonesia, where horizontal emoticons are commonly used along with spoken English.


Differences in emoticon use: emoticons vary across cultures.  Learn more to localize your message.

Interpreting Facial Cues


The part of the face that is culturally important for expressing meaning gives us a deeper understanding of the contextual difference between horizontal and vertical emoticons. The mouth shape for expressing emotion is the focus of the horizontal emoticon style, commonly used with an inexpressive colon representing eyes.


Conversely, the vertical style of emoticons puts focus on eye shape for emotional expression, and either neglects to include the mouth or represents it with a simple underscore.


Behavioral scientist Masaki Yuki of Hokkaido University in Japan, released the findings from his study in this area with his 2007 paper titled ‘Are the windows to the soul the same in East and West?’ In it he discussed the influence of cultural background on the way facial expressions are used to display emotion.


He states Americans are shaped by a culture of independence, emotional openness and overt self-expression. As the mouth is the most versatile part of the face for expression, smiling has an integral role in daily American interactions: The presence of a smile indicates politeness, and in retail situations the size of a smile often correlates to the customer’s rating of the experience.


In contrast, people in East Asian countries such as Japan, China and Korea place a higher value on humility and are ‘collectivistic and interdependent’. Yuki says, “It is more important for emotional expressions to be controlled and subdued, and a relative absence of affect is considered crucial for maintaining harmonious relationships.” Subsequently, smiles and frowns are rare in countries like Japan. Instead, people look to the eyes for their emotional cues, which they believe display more depth of honesty in emotion than the mouth.


Localize Emoticons for Your Audience


Cultural differences are the reason for the two variations of emoticons today. Just as it is important to keep these differences in mind when interpreting languages for tasks like global patent filing, when localizing materials for East and West it is crucial to translate and contextualize emoticons, too.

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Emoticon use varies across cultures.  Learn more for how to localize your message.


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