Whatever does -_-; mean?

It’s not new to hear that the inscrutable Asians have a different system of thought and action. Richard Nisbett, for example, has written extensively about this topic, demonstrating how people from East Asia respond differently from Westerners in psychological tests like photo describing or object grouping. For example, in an experiment he carried out, when asked what belongs better together among the chicken, grass and cow, participants from the West tended to put the cow and the chicken together (as they both are animals) and participants from the East tended to put the cow with the grass (as cows eat grass). His explanation is that Westerners are more keen on categorisation while Asians are more attuned to relationships.

I don’t know whether it is a genetic expression or a learning effect. In any case, when it comes to body language and nonverbal communication, the cultural difference seems obvious. Early this month, I came to read about an interesting study conducted by a Japanese researcher Masaki Yuki. According to him, Americans and Japanese use different ranges of emoticons because they read faces differently. While the former look at people’s mouths to judge whether they are happy or sad [hence : )], the latter tend to look at their interlocutors’ eyes [hence ^^].  How fascinating.

Indeed, my particular interest lies in culture-specific use of emoticons and other email/IM/SMS languages. It started with informal observation. When I earlier used emoticons like ^^; [smiling], -_- [awkward or absurd], T.T [crying] in communication with European friends, I was almost always asked back what I meant. I then noticed that my emoticons were understood without me explaining them in extra words if recipients were Korean, Chinese Japanese friends. Despite the fact that my social circle was way too small to lead this observation to any generalisation, I thought there was an interesting research question in this. So when I was doing a team project on the language of text messages during the DEA course, I wanted to develop the work into a jargon study. In other words, the SMS language is marked by jargon, around which communicants build certain identity groups. Something you can’t intuitively know unless you either learn or share an intertextual reference.

Being a team project, the final report turned out to be a discussion on youth culture in relation to mobile phone use instead. However, my secret hypothesis, put in the ‘I will write a paper about this someday’ file, was that behind the development of such Asian emoticons, Japanese manga acted as a shared reference.


(Slam Dunk, 17: 93)

Above is from Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk (Korean trans.), voted as the Number 1 manga of all time last year, having sold 100 million copies in Japan alone. By the way, smileys ^^ and ^^; indicate a subtle difference. Added ‘;‘ represents sweat out of embarrassment, as seen in this cut among many others. So if someone compliments you and you want to be modest about that, for example, you would like to use ^^; instead of simple ^^.


(Slam Dunk, 17: 94)

Crying is, again just like in this cut, about streaming tears. Hence T.T – or for Koreans, ㅜㅜ or ㅠㅠ [Korean vowels] – rather than being down at the mouth like : (.


(Slam Dunk, 17: 99)

One more example. The most versatile one is -_-. I have thought of what the translation of it can be and have concluded that there is no exact equivalent. It is basically used when you find a situation you are in or what you have heard absurd. So it can be “Nonsense” or “Awkward” as well as “Hmmm” or “Tut, tut”. This is the best I can do.

I would prefer my hypothesis [^^;], but Yuki’s and mine are not mutually contradicting or anything at the end of the day. Perhaps Japanese manga and Korean manhwa have gained the particular styles of drawing because of the East Asian way of reading faces.

While I was writing this post, I came across a couple of blog posts on Yuki’s study. One of these ended with a remark: “Maybe this is why so many in the West have for centuries described Asians as ‘inscrutable’ – because we can’t tell from their facial expressions how they feel, but only because we aren’t looking at the right part of the face”. Vice versa.


2 thoughts on “Whatever does -_-; mean?

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