[Guest Post] Avoid Getting Lost in Translation With Emoticons

Although the internet and mobile technology have made it easier than ever for people throughout the globe to communicate with one another, the dependence on text-based messages that arises from such a phenomenon removes the meaning from its emotional context. When reading emails, text messages, or a website’s content, it can be difficult to distinguish between when a person is being serious and when they’re being light-hearted. Carnegie Mellon computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman encountered this problem as early as 1982.

Fahlman and other members of the Computer Science department would often post messages to each other using an online “bulletin board,” a sort of early message board or social networking tool. However, Fahlman and his colleagues soon realized that they had trouble determining whether or not certain messages were meant to be taken entirely seriously. To help clarify the issue, Fahlman decided he would include a smile : ) with light-hearted posts and a frown : ( with serious ones. Thus, the emoticon was born.

Fast-forward to today, and there are currently more than 15,000 emoticons in use. These images often mimic common facial expressions, providing emotional context for readers. That said, emoticons don’t always have a universal meaning: An image that conveys a clear emotion in readers of one culture may fail to resonate with readers of another.

In the world of international ecommerce, it’s important to remember this. While accurately translating your website and all other relevant materials should be the main goal of any business owner seeking to attract cross-border customers, you also must ensure that all the visual content is tailored to each particular demographic you’re targeting.

Horizontal vs. Vertical Emoticons

Most emoticons are designed to be read horizontally, like the classic : ) smiley. However, vertical emoticons like the ^_^ smile are often more common in East Asian countries, where written language isn’t read in the left-to-right manner that most Americans are familiar with. Because people from these cultures aren’t used to reading in that direction, they’re not already conditioned to read an emoticon that way.

It’s worth noting in some countries where vertical writing is common, younger readers who’ve been regularly exposed to the English language still use the horizontal emoticons on Twitter and other social networking sites. This has been shown to be true in places like the Philippines and Indonesia, where English is widely used.

How You Smile

Horizontal emoticons generally rely on the shape of the subject’s mouth to convey meaning. With only some exceptions, a colon represents the eyes, while different icons are used for the mouth depending on the emotion being portrayed. In contrast, vertical emoticons place more emphasis on how the eyes express emotions.

According to Masaki Yuki, a behavioral scientist at Japan’s Hokkaido University, this may be due to differences in cultural values between the East and the West. Yuki explains that the values of nations like America, which prioritize self-determination and independence, encourage citizens to express their emotions freely and openly. Americans in particular emphasize the importance of a smile, resulting in emoticons which are designed to mirror different types of smiles.

Yuki explains that in Eastern cultures, on the other hand, “it is more important for emotional expressions to be controlled and subdued, and a relative absence of affect is considered crucial for maintaining harmonious relationships.” Because large, noticeable smiles are not as easy to find in such countries, people from these cultures are used to looking for emotional cues in a person’s eyes, rather than their mouth. This may suggest that they’re more likely to respond to emoticons which emphasize the eyes.

How it Applies

If you’re trying to connect with an overseas audience via web content, there are several times when choosing the right emoticon for a given culture will be important. Consider the following examples:

  • Social Media: Your social media presence helps you develop a branded identity. The more consistent your brand is, the more it will resonate with an audience. Social media posts often employ emoticons to convey the human, emotional side of a brand.
  • Mailing Lists: Many internet businesses use mailing lists to generate customer loyalty. These emails often include emoticons. Using them deepens that sense of personal connection that businesses seek to foster in their customer base.
  • Personal Correspondence: If you’re corresponding directly with an international client via email, you may want to use emoticons to imbue your messages with a greater degree of context. It’s important to send the right ones.
  • Branded Content: Aside from social media posts, you may use emoticons in other forms of branded content, whether it be on your website, in marketing materials, etc. Maintain your brand with the correct emoticons.

These are significant points to consider for anyone working in international ecommerce. To truly localize your website content, you can’t merely rely on strong translations of any written language. Although this is an essential component of localized content, if you use the wrong emoticons, you won’t communicate every nuance of the original message.

Sirena Rubinoff is the Content Manager at Morningside Translations. She earned her B.A. and Master’s Degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. After completing her graduate degree, Sirena won an international fellowship as a Rotary Cultural Ambassador to Jerusalem. Sirena covers topics related to website and software localization, global business solutions, and the translation industry as a whole.