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Scientists Prove Emoticons Are Not Universally Understood ( 122

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Quartz: The most recent such study, published Oct. 24 in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examined how emotions expressed in symbols and pictures are understood in three nations with varying degrees of internet connectivity and access: Japan, Cameroon, and Tanzania. Psychologists from the University of Tokyo tested subjects on how well they recognized emotions in emoticons and photographs. Participants across cultures could read emotion accurately in images of real people regardless of race -- but symbolic tech expression was not universally comprehensible. The study subjects were shown photographs of happy, neutral, and sad Caucasians, Asians, and Africans and told to describe the emotions expressed in the images. Generally, participants accurately assessed the feelings expressed across the board. The researchers noted one difference: African participants tended to confuse Asian neutral and sad faces, "perhaps due to lack of exposure to the out-group [Asian] faces," they suggest.

When it came to symbols, however, the scientists found clear cultural differences in emotion recognition. Subjects from all three countries were given a tablet, on which they were asked to scroll through a series of emoticons. They were shown emoticons in the Japanese style, with happiness, sadness, and neutrality expressed in the eyes; in a western style with emotion expressed in the mouth; and "smiley face" emoticons (pictured above). The Japanese subjects fluently read emotion in emoticons, whereas subjects from Cameroon and Tanzania found emoticons utterly mystifying at similar rates. This was true both for urban and rural dwellers in both African nations. The researchers believe this is due to the varying levels of internet exposure in the three countries.

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Scientists Prove Emoticons Are Not Universally Understood

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  • by tgibson ( 131396 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @08:49PM (#55473369) Homepage

    is the pile of smiling pudding. Yum!

    • by turp182 ( 1020263 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @09:40PM (#55473609) Journal

      For Christmas last year my mom bought two bean bags in the shape of what she thought was chocolate cake, for my 7 year old twins. Full size bean bags, not a little pillow.

      When my kids opened them (from large trash bags), they freaked out; they had huge poop emojis!!! It was their favorite gift of the season.

      My mother was initially mortified ("I gave them big pieces of shit?"), then reluctantly positive (it's hard to ignore the happiness the kids were having), and now laughs about it. I just laughed my ass off because it was awesome. They still love to jump onto the poop from the bunk bed.

      Anyway, pretty dumb post for Slashdot, but it brought back that memory which was fun. I don't think Slashdot readers use emojis much, I sent my first one just recently, a camp fire (while I was camping).

      • by antdude ( 79039 )

        So, where can we get order this? ;)

        • Amazon and Walmart both carry it on their websites. They are pretty cool, always a hit when friends visit (they make good defense structures during the Nerf wars).

          • by antdude ( 79039 )

            Not in local stores like in So(uthern) CA(lifornia), eh?

            • I'm in St. Louis and this was a year ago... It's certainly possible. Wally World would be my best bet. At this point I'd just order them online.

      • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

        It's funny, and I totally believe this happened, but how in the world did your mother confuse a roughly triangular shape of the poop emoji for chocolate cake? I have never seen a (vertically) triangular cake.

        My youngest daughter (4) has one of these in pink. She's been calling it "ice cream," pretending to lick it, and sometimes sleeps with it.

        • It's true, my mom won Christmas on accident, and with some embarrassment. She's older and has never used emojis. She just thought they were cute bean bag chairs.

          What I like best about them is that the little balls that come out from inside usually have some static electricity and will move away from a person's finger when it gets close (not touching them). We like to move them around the poop without touching them (a good science lesson actually, and awesome fun).

          • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

            Nice. I can't resist playing with electric/magnetic repulsion when it's in front of me. It's definitely good science, but there's also just something distinctive, weird, and captivating about the push and pull of those invisible forces. The kids aren't quite into it yet, but I'm looking forward to the day the idea clicks for them.

    • It's not smiling pudding, you imbecile! It's smiling chocolate soft-serve ice cream!

    • by in10se ( 472253 )

      emoticon != emoji

  • by jrumney ( 197329 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @09:02PM (#55473421)
    Graphical symbols invented by Japanese in the context of Japanese culture are only truly understood by Japanese. Who'd have guessed?

    Can I have my college tuition fees back now? I think I can put it to better use in my bathroom.

    • Emojis designed in American by those born in America to be placed into American products are not understood by many Americans either. Even those young enough to understand certainly "learned" the emojis instead of them being naturally understood.

    • by Calydor ( 739835 ) on Thursday November 02, 2017 @02:39AM (#55474575)

      They don't even seem to check if people AGREE on the meanings of the emojis, as far as I can tell.

      In my country we have a radio show on Saturday morning where people can write or call in with various dilemmas they face in their lives to get a small group of semi-famous people (authors, actors, politicians etc.) to brainstorm the problem and perhaps give a new point of view.

      A couple of weeks ago, one of these dilemmas related to the asker's wife receiving a text message from her massage therapist about having found an open time slot for an emergency session - I don't remember why, it's not important to the story.

      The therapist ended this text message with a kissing smiley, and apparently this was some massive faux pas in the eyes of both husband and wife. The panel of the day were rather split on how serious such a smiley was, exactly what it would symbolize in the context, and even whether it had been created as an auto-correct from a different intended smiley.

      And we want to use emojis as if they have some kind of set-in-stone meaning? Not happening.

      • That is quite interesting. I get the kiss emoji quite often too in general conversation especially from people in France / Benelux, often in quick succession when wishing well or as an apology.

        Weirds me out.

    • The summary states that they showed them both Japanese and western emoticons, both of which confused the African participants. The Japanese on the other hand were able to read both Japanese and western style emoticons just fine.
  • (.)(.)

  • I mislabeled both.
    wide eyed (0_0) looks far from a deadpan face :-|
    And (T_T) looks more like a whoosh face than a crying rivers face.
    • I mislabeled both.

      wide eyed (0_0) looks far from a deadpan face :-|

      And (T_T) looks more like a whoosh face than a crying rivers face.

      I'm thinking that if you have been exposed to Anime then you would figure these out. But otherwise, yeah, the meaning isn't obvious without a cultural reference.

      • Is there an emoticon for catgirl?

      • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Thursday November 02, 2017 @08:41AM (#55475381)

        I've been exposed to enough anime that I'm starting to learn spoken Japanese. I still think (T_T) looks more cynical than crying rivers, so I think that emoticon is just culturally distinct on its own merits. Most westerners are simply more familiar with the sideways emoticons, not the Japanese versions. :-) :-| :-( :-P :-/ >-(

        We sort of forget that we didn't intrinsically *know* these things. We actually had to learn them along with everything else we take for granted in these modern times. So, in the case of Japanese, with enough cultural conditioning, you would probably eventually learn to interpret those emoticons the same way. I'm not sure I'd ascribe any deeper meanings in the results, such as how "Japanese look for emotion in the eyes, Westerners in the mouth" as the paper apparently did.

        What's strange is the line from the writeup "In other words, we don’t all see glee in this glyph : )" which wasn't at all supported by the study's conclusion (not that we can actually READ it). From what I understand, we all DO see glee in that glyph. It was the other two Japanese emoticons that confused non-Japanese, especially Africans.

    • I blame the researchers for miss labeling their emoticon. The second one isn't really 'neutral' it's a shocked blank stare and the third one isn't really 'sad' it's a crying face.

      Just because the Japanese use that for sad event, doesn't mean it is the same sad the Western people thinks.

  • wish i had thought of it
  • Maybe they were too busy wondering how they fit a TV into something so small?

    • No, they were more busy pondering what kind of crap we waste money on when there are people who have actual problems.

    • You know, that's one of the things I really wonder, what people from the ancient past would say if they could see how we interpret their belongings. Imagine a caveman going

      "Burial rites? Huh? Oh, because there were deer bones around the ones of Uncle Urgkh? That's not a burial mound, that's our garbage pit you idiot!"

  • ...for using the correct term, "emoticon", and not that stupid term "emo-jumanji" or whatever the kids are saying these days. /my lawn
  • by craXORjack ( 726120 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @09:44PM (#55473637)
    You don't have to go to other countries to check these results. I have gotten the most confusing emoticons while texting with my girlfriend and when I have asked her what they mean it turns out they aren't even the same as what she is seeing. I'll ask 'what is this one with the frowny face winking at me and tears flying out to the sides?' and she'll say 'what?! That isn't what it looks like.' Being an Android guy dating an iPhone girl is downright confusing.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      And this, ladies and gents, is why humans invented "words", and later, the ability to write them down.

      • Words are for old people.

        • ^^^^^^^ Look at this old person using words......NERD!!!!

        • What are words worth?
          What are words worth? - words
          Words in papers, words in books
          Words on TV, words for crooks
          Words of comfort, words of peace
          Words to make the fighting cease Words to tell you what to do
          Words are working hard for you
          Eat your words but don't go hungry
          Words have always nearly hung me
          What are words worth?
          What are words worth? - words

          Words of nuance, words of skill
          And words of romance are a thrill
          Words are stupid, words are fun
          Words can put you on the run

          Mots pressé, Mots sensÃ

      • What do words mean?

        "See you later." Will you actually see me later, or are you just saying good bye?

        "How are you?" Are you really inquiring as to my well being, or is this just a greeting?

        "Yeah" Is that agreement? Exclamation? A question? An interjection?

        "Love" (see also: "Hate") Can mean anywhere from "I generally enjoy this" to "I would be depressed if parted from it"
      • by Quirkz ( 1206400 )

        So that autocorrect can change those into something unintelligible instead.

    • by Chrisq ( 894406 )
      Don't get too hot about it, she might suggest that she wants to cool you down with a water pistol. This could cause a serious misunderstanding [].
  • by jabberw0k ( 62554 ) on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:04PM (#55473723) Homepage Journal
    Me: "Why did you send me a message that says, blob blob blob blob blob?"
    • by WallyL ( 4154209 )

      The first time I read through anything, my eyes gloss right over the collection of punctuation marks that make emoticons. I generally don't even notice their existence until a second or third reading. And then I ignore them.

      I chalk it up to learning proper and American English in school, where punctuation marks end sentences or separate clauses, items in a list, etc.

  • by Pollux ( 102520 ) <{ge.ten.atadet} {ta} {reteps}> on Wednesday November 01, 2017 @10:14PM (#55473761) Journal

    I wonder if any historians may actually be concerned about this.

    Thinking back to my college days, there is much of antiquity that is not well understood due to the inability to understand its written languages. The Rosetta Stone was an as incredible as it was rare. So much history is locked away in written language that will likely never be understood. (See this page [] for some examples.) A culture's language is its bridge to understanding the culture itself.

    If emoticons are linguistically ambiguous, we run a risk that our culture will not be understood in the future, either.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      I wonder if any historians may actually be concerned about this.

      I doubt it because nothing of historical significance is communicated using modern emoticons.

      • Sure there are, just look at any social network today. Those may not seem historically significant to us, but similar documents throughout history (casual letters and correspondences) have greatly impacted the understanding of the times and events that took place in our own history. Preserving and understanding the context of emoticons (and emoji) is going to be important for historians of the future to understand what drove the 21st century.
      • I doubt it because nothing of historical significance is communicated using modern emoticons.

        We need an emoticon for "orange finger on red button"...

    • Another interesting take on this, what if humanity dies out and our records are discovered by a species without a face, or the ability to form facial expressions, or who simply don't (cultural taboo)? These emoticons representing states of our faces would be totally foreign to them, and probably remain completely indecipherable. So written sarcasm or gentle insults may look completely serious to them if they cannot understand the emoticons attached to change the tone of the words themselves.
    • There is nothing of value to discern for a future civilization out of emojis.

      They are worthless as a communication method.

      The only thing they may wonder is why homo sapiens from this time period were so fascinated with eggplants.

    • by Dog-Cow ( 21281 )

      Why exactly should we care if anyone in the future understands our culture?

  • The study subjects were shown photographs of happy, neutral, and sad Caucasians, Asians, and Africans and told to describe the emotions expressed in the images.

    a) The study subjects were shown photographs of [expressions the study designers? thought looked like] happy, neutral, and sad Caucasians, Asians, and Africans and told to describe the emotions expressed in the images.

    b) Were the subjects of the photos genuinely experiencing the emotions which were [according to the study designers?] being portrayed

  • ...heiroglyphs understood only by ancient Egyptians and modern Egyptologists. Well... like... dohhhh...

  • Words aren't "universally understood" either, not even amongst native speakers of a language. Heck, a large part of the English speaking population doesn't understand the meaning of "no".
  • Use Lucifer's emoji message [] for your next study and see if _anybody_ who hasn't see this scene can understand what it means.

Research is what I'm doing when I don't know what I'm doing. -- Wernher von Braun