Like hand gestures, it is possible facial expressions carry with them innate cultural differences with regard to how we physically emote. (Word to the wise:👌 means something verrrrrry different in Brazil). According to a study of cultural diversity of facial expressions of emotion, in Western cultures face to face fixation is more even distributed including mouths and East Asian fixation is based towards the upper middle part primarily on the eyes.
Which had me thinking about emoticons. Vertical emoticons, popularized in Eastern culture (Ex: ^_^ ) appear to focus on eye expression. However, horizontal emoticons, which force you to tilt your head sideways, (Ex. :D) are popular in Western digital communications and appear to have a focus on mouth shape.
At first I thought emoticon style preference was about keyboard accessibility (after all, I can’t insert many of my favorites like “¯\_(ツ)_/¯” without pulling it up from my pasteboard). But, the mechanics of typing “T_T” and “:,(” are nearly identical since both are accessible via the same English qwerty keyboard. Both are semantically similar and yet there are clear cultural differences in use. Perhaps the difference lies less in the keyboard and more with the person behind the keyboard 👁️🌍👁️
How we process images goes waaaaaaaay beyond emoji. Brain research is providing more evidence to what psychology experiments have found for years: that culture can affect not just language and custom, but how people experience the world. In one example of the study, when participants were shown an elephant in the jungle, the Westerner will focus on the elephant and, the Easterner is going to be more thinking about the jungle scene that has the elephant in it. It suggests that people see different elements of pictures. 🤯
Seeing eye to eye 👁️✌️👁️
This is all to say that we can be staring at the exact same facial expression — be it face to face, a face made up of punctuation, or emoji and still “see” different things. Take the unamused face emoji, a classic (😒). According to this study from 2019 women interpreted “Unamused face” as a signifier of anger more than others. Face Screaming in Fear (😱)? Generally interpreted as “surprise” by younger crowds and “fear” in older ones. And, I hate to break it to you but not everyone looks at Slightly Smiling Face (🙂) and sees a friend smiling back. That blank stare can give off “humorless" and untrusting vibes.
Neat 🙂 .
(For those looking for an alternative to “🙂”: These warm smiles work in a pinch: ☺️😊But if you have a flare for drama — like moi — I’ve been trying out this friend: 😇 or simply “^____^”. Whatever you use, you do you!)
Thankfully, emoji are not frequently shared in isolation — ~80% of emoji are shared along text — words clarify some of the ambiguities and multitudes emoji have out of context. And in turn, emoji clarify the intent behind those words — in an interesting parallel, 80% of communication can be non-verbal. ＼(👁️o👁️)／