Emoticons: Which one is the American and which the Japanese?


Blog article / Sunday, November 19th, 2017

I’ve written in one of my earlier articles on smart cities, that technology should always be used as an enabling, facilitating asset to realize a desired customer journey or experience. As new exponential technologies arise yearly (just take a look at the Gartner hypecycle), it becomes increasingly important to decide which technologies to use, and which to pass on. After all, we don’t have unlimited time nor funding to use them all (apart from the fact that this is would be kind of a pointless exercise).

That being said, using technologies can sometimes lead to unexpected but nevertheless very interesting human behavior. Let’s look at two examples:

1. Email your favorite tree in Melbourne
The Atlantic has a very moving, beautiful article about the effect of equipping Melbourne trees with unique email addresses. Meant as a way for citizens to report damage to trees or otherwise unwanted effects, people are able write a text to the tree of their choice. Rather than people using this new feature for its envisioned purpose, people starting expressing their love and intrinsic feelings with their favorite nature objects, such as this excerpt shows (a message directed to Golden Elm, Tree ID 1037148):

“I’m so sorry you’re going to die soon. It makes me sad when trucks damage your low hanging branches. Are you as tired of all this construction work as we are?”

Check out the full article for other beautiful (and devastating) messages to trees. Unexpected results from an extraordinary experiment by the Melbourne municipal.

2. Two emoticons: which one is the Japanese and which one the American?

Consider the following two emoticons:

Which one is the Japanese and which one the American emoticon?

Take your time…

Yes.
You’re probably right: the left one is American, the right one Japanese. Bravo! However, why is this the case?

That question is a bit harder no? When I show this in seminars, people always (rightly) say they recognize it from anime series or other Japanese media such as their infamous comic books: characters in those series often have big eyes, much bigger than in Western comic series. And yes, that might be right, but then why do these anime illustrators depict figures with such big, emotional eyes?

Anime and Japanese comics: big eyes to express emotions (source: Google images)

The answer? How we express and read emotions: Western people tend to first look at the mouth when reading emotions, Asian people focus on the eyes when they do. See how our intrinsic, fundamental psychological differences in our human nature find their way to such trivial things like emoticons?

Excellent example of our (digital) behavior in how we use technology to express our inner selves.

What can we learn from this?

I’m a big fan of using technology for the sake of creating better user experiences. As such, it often has a subdominant role to UX: you start with the customer experience and work your way back from there, to assess which technologies are most suitable/desired to realize this desired experience (as Steve Jobs already told us in 1997).

“You start with the customer experience, and work your way back from there” – Steve Jobs, 1997

That being said, there are many examples (like the two above) that show how people are creative, ingenious creatures and love using technology to express their emotions, often in surprising – or unaccounted – ways. These things keep innovation fun and exciting, frankly.

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