Research psychologists have known for years that certain facial expressions of emotion are easily recognized by people around the world. Sad faces and happy faces, for instance, are recognized with a high degree of accuracy, even by people who live in remote places and have had little or no contact with outsiders (Ekman and Friesen, 1971).
But what about the emoticons that people use when e-mailing, texting, or posting on Facebook? Is the ubiquitous "smiley face" interpreted as a happy face by people who do not communicate online?
In a study published this month in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, Japanese researchers tested the ability of people in different countries to recognize happy and sad human faces and happy and sad emoticons (Takahashi, Oishi, and Shimada, 2017). The researchers intentionally selected three countries—Japan, Cameroon, and Tanzania—that have different levels of Internet access. According to the World Bank, 94 percent of Japanese are Internet users. In Cameroon and Tanzania, the percentages are 21 percent and 5 percent, respectively.
The researchers recruited a few dozen volunteers in each country. The 30 Cameroonian participants were hunter-gatherers, farmers, and city dwellers. The 37 Tanzanian participants were farmers, herders, and city dwellers. The 24 Japanese participants were all university students in Tokyo.
Each participant used a tablet device to look at and respond to 18 stimuli. Nine of the stimuli were real human faces that displayed a happy, sad, or neutral facial expression. The other nine stimuli were emoticons that displayed a happy, sad, or neutral expression according to one of three emoticon styles: smiley faces, Western style, or Japanese style.
Here are the nine emoticons used by the researchers.
Notice the stylistic differences in the emoticons. The smiley faces are identical to each other except for the symbol used to depict the mouth. The same is true of the Western emoticons. The Japanese emoticons are identical to each other except for the symbols used to depict the eyes.
These cultural differences make sense in light of studies that have found that Westerners are more likely to focus on the shape of the mouth when deciphering emotions, while East Asians are more likely to focus on the shape of the eyes (for example, Yuki, Maddux, and Masuda, 2007).
In the three-nation study, each participant looked at the 18 stimuli and then used a slider control to rate the expressed emotion for each human face and emoticon. If the participant thought the expressed emotion was very sad, the participant was instructed to move the slider to the far right. If the participant thought the expressed emotion was very happy, the participant moved the slider to the far left.
The researchers discovered, as expected, that the emotions expressed by the human faces were easily recognized, and equally so by all three groups. Large differences, however, were observed in the ratings of the emoticons. The Japanese participants correctly deciphered all nine emoticons, but the Cameroonian and Tanzanian participants did not.
Most of the Cameroonians rated the sad Japanese emoticon as "happier" than the happy Japanese emoticon. They rated all three Western emoticons as being on the "sad" half of the scale.
Most of the Tanzanians rated all three Japanese emoticons and all three Western emoticons as emotionally neutral, neither happy nor sad. They clearly weren’t familiar with Japanese and Western conventions.
Even the smiley face emoticons, which somewhat resemble actual facial expressions, were a mystery to the Cameroonian and Tanzanian participants. When looking at the happy and neutral smiley faces, they saw no difference in terms of expressed emotion—and the sad smiley face was rated as just a little bit sadder than the happy face.
In their paper, Takahashi, Oishi, and Shimada offered a simple, highly plausible explanation for their findings: Most people living in Cameroon and Tanzania have little or no experience with the Internet and online communication. As a result, they aren’t familiar with stylistic conventions and don’t understand what the emoticons represent.
The study used very small samples and should be considered an initial foray into the psychology of emoticons. Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that we can’t assume everyone will understand us if we use emoticons when we communicate with people in different countries.
Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. V. (1971). Constants across cultures in the face and emotion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 17, 124-129.
Takahashi, K., Oishi, T., & Shimada, M. (2017). Is :-) Smiling? Cross-cultural study on recognition of emoticon’s emotion. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(10), 1578-1586.
Yuki, M., Maddux, W. W., & Masuda, T. (2007). Are the windows to the soul the same in the East and West? Cultural differences in using the eyes and the mouth as cues to recognize emotions in Japan and the United States. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 303-311.