The Ethics of :-)

A few weeks ago I mentioned some of the research I was doing with two groups of students this summer. The first group is working on tattoos and spirituality. The second group is working on emoticon usage.

Emoticons, I'm sure you know, are the ubiquitous little faces we add to electronic communication--emails, texts, Twitter, Facebook, blogs--to add emotional content to our message. The most common emoticon is the smiley face, which comes in two main varieties:


I pefer the one with the nose. I have no idea why. Likely it's a Freudian thing having to do with my mother. Beyond the two main varieties there are some less common variations:
:0) Adding a big nose for a kind of clownish look.

=) or =-) Using an "equals" sign rather than the colon for the eyes.
You can accentuate the smiling and even laugh by adding a capital D for the closed parentheses:

And so on.

Beyond smiling the most common emotion is the wink, a way to take the edge off a playful or sarcastic electronic communication:
The wink:


And there is so much more. You can stick your tongue out:


Get angry or grim:



Or sad:


Or surprised:

The creativity here is really remarkable.

Beyond the emoticon we also see the use of initialisms to communicate emotional or physical reactions to electronic communication. The most common being:
lol, LOL

omg, OMG
And, finally, you can add emotion to electronic communication by using capital letters, because REALLY YOU NEED TO KNOW THIS STUFF. This along with a promiscuous use of punctuation. Like:

Where's all this coming from? Well, humans evolved to communicate face to face. Consequently, most of our communication is nonverbal, with meaning judged by attending to tone, volume, eye contact, and body language. These aspects of language are called paralanguage, and they are critical in the communication process.

Now ponder the dawn of electronic communication and the challenges it has placed upon human communication. Think of it from an evolutionary standpoint, how completely unequipped we are to communicate through this medium. Having stripped away the paralanguage electronic communication is very glitchy. Lacking tone and other nonverbal cues we often misinterpret electronic communication. This, combined with the anonymity, is the main reason blog conversations are so difficult and unproductive. We are trying to communicate about volatile material though a medium stripped of paralanguage, the aspect of language most critical to getting us productively through difficult conversations.

Given this situation, it's remarkable how a paralanguage has evolved for electronic communication. It's still glitchy, but it has helped. Consider the two sentences:
Joe, you're a jerk.

Joe, you're a jerk. :-)
Odds are, you interpret the second sentence as being a stab at humor. Or, at the very least, good natured ribbing between friends.

And this is one of the interesting things that the students and I discovered in getting into the emoticon literature. The power of paralanguage is that it can override the literal meaning of our words. When I use sarcasm--deploying that paralinguistic tone we all know and love--I mean the exact opposite of what I'm saying. Interestingly, the same goes for emoticon use. Having evolved to clarify electronic communication emoticons can now be used to create ambiguity in meaning which can then be exploited to say hurtful things.

For example, imagine this sentence:
Joe, you're a jerk. ;-)
What's that wink about? Do I mean what I'm saying? Or not? Likely I mean it, but if I add the wink I can say what I want ("Joe, you are a jerk.") while hiding behind the emoticon (wink, wink). It's the Internet equivalent of saying something harsh and sarcastic and then appending "I'm only joking." Because, really, you're not joking. The "I'm joking" is just a way to insert enough paralinguistic ambiguity into the conversation so that you can hide if you need to.

The point of all this is that, as silly as it sounds, there is an ethical issue involved in emoticon use. Emoticons can be, albeit small, forms of violence. Tiny daggers that can add a bit of sting to our electronic communication or, more properly, allow us to sting others while granting us plausible deniability. Come out and shoot and then run for cover behind the ;-).

Have great day on email, texts, and the Internet! Be kind out there.


(That's a kiss.)

(And if I add a halo it's, what, a holy kiss?)


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5 thoughts on “The Ethics of :-)”

  1. Yes, I'm paid to do research on stuff like this. Or, rather, I'm paid to do research and this is the stuff I gravitate to.

  2. Huh . . . {(%>{)= (wigged out with big nose, moustache and buck teeth);
    {(%-)= (wigged out after shaving moustache, nose job, and no dental work hence retaining buck teeth);
    }{(%>}@)}} (really wigged out, no nose job, handlebar moustache, sucking wind, bearded psychology prof)


  3. The funny thing is, those are entirely American/Western Emoticons. Asian emoticons focus more on the eyes to convey emotion rather than the mouth. For example:
    ^_^ = happy
    -_-= sleepy
    O_o = Surprised or disturbed depending on context
    T_T= crying (the vertical lines on the T's are tears streaming down the face)
    >_< = usually used in response to something "dumb" (done by you or another person). A Pained response

    It might be entirely appropriate to do a cross cultural study on Emoticons. It's quite interesting that Eastern cultures use the eyes to communicate emotion while Western Cultures tend to use the mouth. Its an effect that is also easily tested.

    Personally, I like my Asian emotes ^_^ (although I can't give up this one: :P)

    On a side note, you might want to study what the proper punctuation of an emoticon in Parentheses (like this one: :)) would be.

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