Emoticons and emojis are used prolifically in today’s text based communications for a variety of reasons. From adding emotional context to text-only communications to enhancing messages with pictorial images, they have become an essential tool in virtual interactions. In texts, blog comments, and instant messaging apps the world over, emoticons and emojis abound.

There is, however, a difference in their use across cultures. In order to accomplish using emoticons effectively across borders, a professional translation service can be a helpful third party to utilize. It is important that companies understand the difference between emoticons and emojis. Additionally, these brands must be aware of what their intention is in using emojis in their international marketing and how to appropriately convey this message.

Emoji vs. Emoticon

There are two different types of pictorial representations of emotions, feelings, and activities: emojis and emoticons. Although they are often confused, it is important to understand the difference in order to enable correct usage for different markets.

An emoticon is a typographical representation of a facial expression and is usually used to show the writer’s mood. It is generally accepted that the emoticons we are familiar with today were invented by Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at America’s Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. He suggested the use of “:)” and “:(” to avoid misunderstandings and conflict on university text-only computer message boards.

On the other hand, emojis are actual pictures of everything or anything, and are extensions to the character set used by a computer’s operating system. Emojis are treated as letters in a non-western language in a similar way to Japanese or Chinese characters. This is why, depending on the technology you are using, you sometimes don’t receive the same emoji that was sent. For example, the dancer emoji on Twitter or Apple is a woman flamenco dancer, whilst Android and Google have a yellow dancing character.

This type of pictorial addition to text-based communications was first available in Japan and created in the late ‘90’s by NTT DoCoMo, a Japanese communication company.

Understanding Emoticon and Emoji Use

To complicate matters further, there are two styles of emoticons. One style is horizontal, like those first used by Scott Fahlman’s classmates, and these are read from left to right. Horizontal emoticons are most often used by Western cultures and emphasize the mouth.

In East Asian countries, vertical emoticons are more common. These are read from top to bottom, and the emphasis is placed on the shape of the eyes. The focus on the eyes synchronizes with Eastern cultures’ custom of focussing on eyes to determine emotional intent.

Emojis on the other hand, don’t require previous knowledge to be read and understood.

Both emojis and emoticons are used differently across cultures. A 2016 study by linguistic researcher Barry Kavanagh of Tohoku University in Japan found that Western cultures were more direct in their use of both emojis and emoticons. The study went on to say that Japanese users were more vague, even using emojis simply as decoration within their messages.

In Eastern cultures, both emoji and emoticon use focus around trying to appear more polite and create a more harmonious online environment. Furthermore, a 2006 study by Kayan et al. found that Eastern users of instant messaging services rated the importance of emoticons much higher than their North American counterparts.

Cultural Impact of Emoticons and Emojis

Behavioral scientist Masaki Yuki, of Hokkaido University in Japan, released findings from his study of this area in 2007. In it, the influences of cultural background on the way facial expressions are used to display emotions are discussed.

American and Western culture is shaped by values of independence, emotional openness, and overt self-expression. When likening this to emoticon and emoji use, it correlates to findings from the 2006 study that Western cultures were more ‘direct’ with their emoticon use.

Inversely, people in East Asian countries such as Japan, China, and Korea place a higher value on collective interdependence and humility. Once again, this fits with the earlier findings that Eastern cultures use emoticons and emojis to smooth social interactions.

Yuki states, “It is more important for emotional expressions to be controlled and subdued, and a relative absence of affect is considered crucial for maintaining harmonious relationships.” This accounts for the focus on eyes in eastern emoticons, and the way in which emoticons and emojis are used in the East and West.

Cater to Your Target Market

Cultural differences in the use of pictorial representations of text communications should be considered carefully when planning cross-border marketing campaigns. The visual cues favored by the Japanese and other Eastern cultures can be woven into communications to make a brand more memorable.

The overt and direct use of emoticons or emojis that is prolific in the West should be tempered and localized for other audiences, just as other differences are when translating languages.

Translating, contextualizing and understanding the use of both cultures’ uses of pictorial representations in text communications is crucial for success when trying to be heard, understood, and remembered abroad.


Morningside Translations


If you are interested in learning more about emojis, emoticons and their implications for translation and localization, check out Morningside Translations’ article Face-off: Cultural Perceptions of Emoticons.



Kavanagh, B. (2016). Emoticons as a medium for channeling politeness within American and Japanese online blogging communities. Language & Communication, 48, 53–65. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.langcom.2016.03.003

Kayan, S., Fussell, S. R., & Setlock, L. D. (2006). Cultural Differences in the Use of Instant Messaging in Asia and North America. In Proceedings of the 2006 20th Anniversary Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work (pp. 525–528). New York, NY, USA: ACM. https://doi.org/10.1145/1180875.1180956

Yuki, M., Maddux, W. W. & Masuda, T. (2007). Are the windows to the soul the same in the East and West? Cultural differences in using the eyes and mouth as cues to recognize emotions in Japan and the United States. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43, 303-311. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2006.02.004