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The Cross-Cultural Significance of Emoticons

Examining the difference between Japanese and American emoticons.

Ever wonder why certain happy emoticons, or smileys, have carets (^^) for eyes? Research suggests that emoticons with expressive eyes appeal to Asian (more specifically, Japanese) users because of differences in cross-cultural psychology.

In a 2005 study titled “Are The Windows to the Soul the Same in the East and West?,” Masaki Yuki and co-authors hypothesize that depending on an individual’s cultural background, cues present in different portions of the face are interpreted and weighted differently.

According to the researchers:

“Given that the eyes are more difficult to control than the mouth when people express emotions, we predicted that individuals in cultures where emotional subduction is the norm (such as Japan) would focus more strongly on the eyes than the mouth when interpreting others’ emotions. By contrast, we predicted that people in cultures where overt emotional expression is the norm (such as the U.S.) would tend to interpret emotions based on the position of the mouth, because it is the most expressive part of the face.”

Alexandr Pintyuk ©
Source: Alexandr Pintyuk ©

The researchers’ hypothesis was supported by 2 experiments. The first experiment used illustrated faces, and the second used edited expressions captured from real people. In the second experiment, the emotional expressions of the mouth and eyes were independently adjusted. Of note, in both experiments, only Americans and Japanese participants were tested; thus, the specific results of this study can’t be readily generalized to all Eastern and Western countries.

The researchers explain that Westerners may differ from Easterners in how they interpret and comprehend the surrounding world. Specifically, Westerners are more focused on individualism, and denying emotion would be tantamount to denying one’s true self. Whereas, in countries such as Japan, China, and Korea, people tend to be collectivistic and interdependent, so they oftentimes restrain emotional responses to keep relationships harmonious.

Smiling and frowning are controlled by two muscle groups: the zygomatic major and the obicularis oculi. The zygomatic major controls mouth movement, and the obicularis oculi controls eye movement. It’s harder to subdue emotional expression around the eyes than the mouth; thus in Japan, and presumably in other Eastern cultures, the eyes are considered to be the truest indicators of emotion.

On a related note, “fake” smiles involve movement of only the mouth; whereas, “true” smiles involve movement of the eyes and mouth. If you’ve ever faked a smile for a photo and looked at the photo afterwards, you probably understand this distinction well.

The results of this study help explain the difference between emoticons. For instance, in running text, Americans usually indicate stylized facial icons for happiness and sadness by typing :) and :(, respectively. Whereas, Japanese people indicate happiness and sadness by typing (^_^) and (;_;), respectively. These differences are also apparent when choosing emoticons while texting.