Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Texting Your Smile – From East to West

Emoticons are becoming essential to communicating the feelings and tone behind the words in text messages.  But did you know that emoticons with the same meaning differ across cultures?

Texting in a multicultural world 

The emoticon :) that we in the West use for smile,  is often written as ^.^ in the East.  What if you’re texting that you’re sad?  Westerners use :( while many people in Asian cultures signal that feeling with -_- .  And if you’re so sad that you’re crying as you text, you might write :’(   ,  while your Asian friend may signal the same emotion with ; _ ;

It’s interesting that American and other Westerners replicate emotions with side-way symbols that suggest the mouth, while some Asians use horizontal representations that suggest the eyes. How might this differing symbol usage reflect on cultural communication?

Cultures differ in how they take in information  

Anthropologist Edward T. Hall in his groundbreaking book, Beyond Culture, distinguishes between high and low-context cultures. Westerners (America/Northern Europe) prefer low-context communication wherein the information exchanged is explicitly embedded in the code (the spoken or written word.  Thus, “Read my lips” or “take a person at his/her word.”

Most other cultures around the world, however, use high-context communication wherein the meaning of the message comes from the context in which it is given. Thus, a person’s reputation, social position, gestures and face convey more meaning than does the simple code of the spoken or written word. “The eyes are the windows to the soul” is one Arab proverb. And ancient languages such as Chinese have tonal and pictorial roots that signal meaning. 

An understanding of high and low context cultures is basic to effective cross-cultural communication. When we recognize that the other person’s way of integrating and evaluating information may be differ from ours, we’re likely to avoid a surprising miscommunication  :0  or o_0 when texting in our multicultural world.  

Jolinda Osborne

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