Emoticons and Emotions

Emoticons are a simple and easily understandable way to express emotions in writing using letters and punctuation without any special pictures, but why might Japanese emoticons be better than western ones? And can we really trust expressions to tell us about emotions anyway?

African woman smiling 
Image by Tri Le from Pixabay

The trouble with early online message board messages, email and text messages was that it was always more difficult to express subtleties, including intended emotions, than if talking to someone face to face. Jokes were often assumed to be serious and flame wars were the result. So when in 1982 Carnegie Mellon Professor Scott Fahlman suggested the use of the smiley : – ) to indicate a joke in message board messages, a step forward in global peace was probably made. He also suggested that since posts more often than not seemed to be intended as jokes then a sad face : – ( would be more useful to explicitly indicate anything that wasn’t a joke.

He wasn’t actually the first to use punctuation characters to indicate emotions though. The earliest apparently recorded use is in a poem in 1648 by Robert Herrick, an English poet in his poem “To Fortune”.

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)

Whether this was intentional or not is disputed, as punctuation wasn’t consistently used then. Perhaps the poet intended it, perhaps it was just a coincidentall printing error, or perhaps it was a joke inserted by the printers. Either way it is certainly an appropriate use (why not write your own emoticon poem!)

You might think that everyone uses the same emoticons you are familiar with but different cultures use them in different ways. Westerners follow Fahlman’s suggestion putting them on their side. In Japan by contrast they sit the right way up and crucially the emotion is all in the eyes not the mouth which is represented by an underscore. In this style, happiness can be given by (^_^) and T or ; as an indication of crying, can be used for sadness: (T_T) or (;_;). In South Korea, the Korean alphabet is used so a different character set of letter are available (though their symbols are the right way up as with the Japanese version).

Automatically understanding people’s emotions is an important area of research, called sentiment analysis, whether analysing text, faces or other aspects that can be captured. It is amongst other things important for marketeers and advertisers to work out whether people like their products or what issues matter most to people in elections, so it is big business. Anyone who truly cracks it will be rich.

So in reality is the western version or the Eastern version more accurate: are emotions better detected in the shape of the mouth or the eyes? With a smile at least, it turns out that the eyes really give away whether someone is happy or not, not the mouth. When people put on a fake smile their mouth does curve just as with a natural smile. The difference between fake and genuine smiles that really shows if the person is happy is in the eyes. A genuine smile is called a Duchenne smile after Duchenne de Boulogne who in 1862 showed that when people find something actually funny the smile affects the muscles in their eyes. It causes a tell-tale crow’s foot pattern in the skin at the sides of the eyes. Some people can fake a Duchenne too though, so even that is not totally reliable.

As emoticons hint, because emotions are indicated in the eyes as much as in the mouth, sentiment analysis of emotions based on faces needs to focus on the whole face, not just the mouth. However, all may not be what it seems as other research shows that most of the time people do not actually smile at all when genuinely happy. Just like emoticons facial expressions are just a way we tell other people what we want them to think our emotions are, not necessarily our actual emotions. Expressions are not a window into our souls, but a pragmatic way to communicate important information. They probably evolved for the same reason emoticons were invented, to avoid pointless fights. Researchers trying to create software that works out what we really feel, may have their work cut out if their life’s work is to make them genuinely happy.

     ( O . O )
         0

– Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London, Summer 2021

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