Does your nose bleed when you see someone attractive?

Emoticons and miscommunication

Does your nose bleed when you see someone attractive?

Emoticons and miscommunication

It was during our house party, as I was bantering with my flatmates, that I exclaimed:
“Jenny, you look so hot today! You are making my nose bleed.”
“What? Are you okay? You need a doctor!”
“Hahahaha, sweet of you, but no. I mean, ‘nose-bleeding’ is for hot women or hot guys.”
“How come? So is it a compliment? I am still worried about you, are you sure your nose is okay?”

So I asked my Korean friend to come over, and we played a scene mimicking how a guy nose-bleeds excessively as he sees a hot woman approaching. The next morning, when Jenny met me in our bathroom, she mimicked how her blood gushed out of her nose like a waterfall until she fainted. All my British flat-mates had a really good laugh at this exaggerated performance. Somehow I still don’t think she gets what nosebleeds mean in our Asian culture. Even Google doesn’t understand the difference. If you search nose bleed in English, you might see some first aid signs or anatomical pictures, while searching ‘鼻血’ (the Chinese word for ‘nosebleed’)-, you will probably bump into some busty boobs.

Imagine I say you have ‘silkworm eyebrows’, or your face is a perfect ‘goose-egg-shape’? Would you punch me in the face? More likely, you will have three ‘black lines’ appear on your face as you hear my Asian ‘nonsense’ (-_-|||, a wry face expression when someone hears something ridiculous).

These real-life conversations and laughs with my international friends leave me with so many questions: How can they not understand what ‘nosebleeds’ mean? How can their noses not bleed when being turned on? Of course we don’t actually have nose-bleeds either; it’s more of a mental status. And where does such a term originate from in our culture? Arising from an awareness of such communication dissonance between the east and the west is a study into the use of emoticons across cultures. As well as language differences, body language or non-verbal signs can be highly important elements of miscommunication, such as the funny ‘nosebleed’ story shows.

Emoticons (or kaomoji in Japanese), or smileys (:-),☺, or^_^) are graphic symbols created from manipulations of keyboard elements (Katsuno & Yano, 2002) and they made their debut in the US some 30 years ago1. More and more people are sending emoticons through Facebook, WhatsApp, text messages and even in emails (Dresner & Herring, 2010). Facebook, for instance, has recently included preinstalled emoticon packs (e.g. cheeky Snoopy) to fulfill such a growing demand. We seem to be good at using them and interpreting them without any trouble. However, not everyone is aware that eastern emoticons exist, such as T_T, O(∩_∩)O, or something as complicated as (╯‵□′)╯︵┻━┻ (a person flipping over a table angrily). Realizing how these emoticons are influencing my communication style and way of self-expressing has been a surprising, and important, process. A keen interest has spurred me on to look at the differences between these small icons.

What are the differences between 🙂 and (╯‵□′)╯︵┻━┻? It is not easy to answer such a question. In the first place, I was intrigued by the differences at the surface level: the shapes of emoticons, the frequency of use (in Asia they are much more frequent), the disparate interpretation of one and the same emoticon, the gender differences and the contexts of emoticons. One prominent example is the remarkable differences of eye shapes in emoticons, with the western types mostly having colons as eyes whilst eastern ones have a larger variation of eye types (see table 1).

Table 1: Basic types of western and eastern emoticons.

Through content analyses, surveys and web-based interviews, scholars have been taking cultural contexts into consideration and have investigated the differences in emoticon usage across cultures (Kavanagh, 2010; Pflug, 2011; Park, Barash, Fink & Cha, 2013). Through collaboration of international researchers, many insightful discoveries have been made. For example, emoticons are rapidly becoming social norms (Park et al., 2013) and language rather than geography may play a more determining role in the use of emoticons (Park et al., 2013). It was inferred that facial expressions may not be universal (Jack, Garrod, Yu, Caldara & Schyns, 2012), thus easterners express emotion more with the eyes whilst westerners do so with the mouth (Park et al., 2013)

The findings aforementioned focus on ‘how we are using emoticons’. However, I hope to understand more about ‘why we are using emoticons’ – motives and attitudes towards emoticons. Emoticons are of course used by humans. And computer-mediated-communication after all, takes place between two real humans, thus it is important to look at the cultural boundaries or inherent traits behind these icons. To do so, theories by Hofstede and Hall came up.

One of the six cultural dimensions by Hofstede is the dimension of Individualism/Collectivism (I/C) (Hofstede builds the I/C dimension based on a scale of individualism (IDV), which means he proposes that Collectivism is opposite to individualism). Within individualistic cultures, the social framework is loosely-knit and individuals are expected to look after themselves and their immediate families. However, in collectivist cultures the social framework is tightly-knit, and people are integrated into strong, cohesive in-groups, often extended families, from birth onwards (Hofstede, 1991, 2011; The Hofstede Center, n.d.). The core difference between the two ends of this cultural dimension is that individualistic cultures encourage ‘I’-consciousness, independence and uniqueness, whereas collectivistic cultures encourage ‘we’-consciousness, duty to in-group and maintenance of in-group harmony (Oyserman, Coon, & Kemmelmeier, 2002; Wang, 2004). With an I/C score of 20, China is a highly collectivist culture where people act in the interest of the group and not necessarily of themselves. The Netherlands, with an I/C score of 80 is an individualistic society (The Hofstede Center, n.d.).

Hall (1976) took on a different approach and presented a cultural framework of high/low-context distinctions based on the styles of communication. In high-context cultures, people tend to communicate in a relatively more ambiguous, indirect and understated way, which makes wording very important. On the other hand, communicators in low-context cultures tend to be more explicit, and the value of a single word is not as important as in high context culture. This ranking of high/low-context is relational in its nature; for instance, China is a high-context culture in contrast to The Netherlands, which is a low-context category (Hall & Hall, 1990).

It was confirmed in early studies that reliable cultural differences have effects on people’s emotional expressions, judgments and communication style. For instance, Matsumoto (1991) found that people from individualist cultures tend to show more varieties of emotions than people from collectivistic cultures. Furthermore, the recognition and judgments of emotions also differ between different cultural dimensions (Schimmack, 1996; Matsumoto et al., 2002). Reflecting upon emoticon use, a lot of cross-cultural research has confirmed that culture has an impact on emoticon use (Kastuno & Yano, 2002; Wang, 2004; Kavanagh, 2010; Park et al., 2013).

Moreover, to understand the development of emoticons in the eastern countries, it is important to acknowledge the powerful influence from a wide range of intertextual connections that make its development not only possible but also plausible (Katsuno & Yano, 2002). By intertextual connections we mean the aesthetics in traditional writing systems in Asian countries (e.g. China and Japan) (Katsuno & Yano, 2002); the emergence of new input methods or gadgets2 (Katsuno & Yano, 2002); the influence from the manga or anime; the development of a subculture such as ‘kuso’ (literally means ‘crap’ in Japanese, now stands for internet spoof or parody, known in Chinese as ‘e gao’) (Meng, 2011).

It is only when I migrated from my own country that I realized the culturally embedded traits I have carried with me. For instance, when I arrived in the Netherlands a year ago, I often felt quite unsatisfied chatting with my friends on WhatsApp or Facebook. Reflecting on the limited numbers of emoticons, I reckon it is because I am somewhat unable to fully convey myself, or in other words, I feel less of myself. I would prefer Kakaotalk (a Korean version of WhatsApp) or WeChat (a Chinese version of Whatsapp) where one can banter with a good friend with a nose-bleeding duck.

Lastly, let’s turn our eyes to the beautiful late autumn in Holland. Leaves are falling these days. You may hear sighs, you may as well hear hope. We are trying to decipher the same upcoming of winter with different scripts we installed. To me, after all is said, miscommunications exist everywhere; it’s rooted in our ways of thinking. Emoticons are just small icons that light up our understanding towards each other.



1. Emoticons in cyberspace made their debut in 1982 in the Carnegie Mellon University bulletin board system, by Scott Fahlman, who used 🙂 and 🙁 to mark his sentence as a joke or not (Krohn, 2004)

2. For instance, the Chinese people input Chinese characters use input method, such as ‘Sougou’. If you type ‘haha’ on the keyboard or your mobile phone, it will show the correspondent characters of ‘haha’ (‘哈哈’) as well as some emoticons representing emotions related to ‘haha’ (see image 1)

Image 1: Input method for Chinese called Sougou

Jiaqi Li is momenteel student in de master Communication science (Youth and Media track), aan de Universiteit van Amsterdam. Ze komt oorspronkelijk uit Shaoxing, in zuidoost China. Het bestuderen van culturen over de hele wereld is één van haar grootste onderzoeksinteresses.

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