‘Hi there! Happy face. Great to see you again. Wink. Oh, you can’t meet me later? Frown.’
Surely only a planet full of absolute cretins would communicate this way with one another? Well then, welcome to Earth.
We have always liked wearing our emotions on our sleeve, yet once faced the dilemma of not knowing how to convey them in non-verbal communication.
How could someone know my mood if they weren’t directly in front of me? The answer came along in the form of the emoticon. The word may be a clumsy combo of ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’, but without it the digital age wouldn’t function properly, as we would have little way of showing others exactly how we are feeling.
Almost every text message you receive these days – whether it’s sent by your kid sister or your nan – will have a smiley face, a neat mix of a colon and a bracket; or a colon, a dash and bracket if the sender is less lazy than expected. But :) or :-) are just the tips of the emoticon iceberg.
They can express everything from surprise :-O to complete indifference :-I within a matter of keystrokes. And they also have an impact on the way we think.
Research published earlier this month in the journal Social Neuroscience revealed that we react to emoticons in the same way we react to seeing an emotion expressed on someone’s face.
Dr Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Australia, led the research. He told Metro the study was ‘driven partly by my dislike of emoticons’ – he decided to carry it out after receiving too many emails from his students which signed off with :-)
In the study, 20 subjects were asked to look at images of people’s faces and smiley face emoticons while electrical activity in their brains was examined.
Similar face-specific brain activity was triggered when participants looked at images of faces and emoticons in their conventional setting. However, when the smiley faces were inverted – so (-: instead of the more established :-) – there was no recognition. So if you are writing your smileys that way, you’re doing it wrong.
Dr Churches says emoticons are a new type of language that we are producing through learning what each symbol means over time.
‘The learnt association between the shape of emotions and their meaning is similar to the learnt association between letters of the alphabet and their meaning which we all learnt as children,’ he said. ‘That the brain can also adapt to process emotions underpins a lot of new research showing how adaptable the brain really is.’
Although we react to an emoticon as we would to a human face, Dr Churches says the brain processes them in a different manner – as it would with symbols that represent words, such as Chinese characters.
Emoticons have long had their own East/West divide, although things are changing, said Alex Davies, a PhD student in machine learning at Cambridge University. He pointed out that ^_^ was once used exclusively to express happiness in Asian emoticon culture, but has since been adopted here. In the West, the emphasis is put on the mouth, while in the East, it is on the eyes, he said.
Emoticons may evolve, then, but don’t expect a new batch to be invented overnight.
‘Until we have new emotions that need to be expressed, it seems unlikely that we’ll need many new emoticons,’ said Davies.
We have a basic need to show our emotions, he said, and when there are obstacles to doing this, we look for a way round them.
‘In any medium which doesn’t allow this through body language or tone of voice, we find ourselves distinctively yearning for the ability to express ourselves.’
The kind of communication offered by emoticons is often accused of being trivial.
‘Used excessively or inappropriately, emoticons are a lazy means of communicating,’ said Dr Churches. ‘They are a sort of visual cliché. To really convey emotion accurately, we’d need to write more than three punctuation marks.’
But Davies believes they can have an impact and don’t have a dumbing-down effect. ‘As in normal conversation, tone by itself is rarely a replacement for actual content,’ he said. ‘Though I’m sure many have experienced a similar feeling to experiencing the silent glance and smile of someone they care about when receiving a simple :) in a text message. Emoticons are simply an expression of our need as humans to communicate using more than just the written word.’
Dr Chris Fulwood, senior lecturer and cyberpsychologist at the University of Wolverhampton’s department of psychology, said that we are limited in the range of messages that can can be communicated through emoticons, but that they do serve an important purpose.
‘Individuals can actively shape technology to suit their needs,’ he said. ‘One of the appeals of emoticons is that they help us to compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues in many online environments. They act as substitutes for traditional facial expressions.’
He said there was no evidence that text-speak is dumbing down the younger generation.
‘Research shows that children who use more text-speak tend to have better literacy. Text-speak may be seen as a creative form of communication and in order to break grammatical rules, we need to understand them in the first place.’