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East Asian e-Culture Takes the Crick out of Your Neck

Posted December 4, 2003: Tom Robb talks about e-mail emoticons in a cultural context. See Dorothy Zemach's From A to Z column, "uve got mail," Essential Teacher, Winter 2003 (pp. 19-21).

Because I teach in Japan, I often receive e-mail in Japanese. I've noticed a number of differences between the way people use e-mail here and the way they use it in the West.

Upright Emoticons

Although the standard smile emoticon :-) is in use all over the world, Koreans and Japanese have cleverly devised an additional set of emoticons that you don't have to turn your head sideways to read.

Perhaps the most common one is a simple two carats ^^, but sometimes ^_^ or (^_^) that represent two arched eyebrows, indicating a smile. Also in common use are these emoticons:

TT sadness (two shut eyes with tears falling)
m(_ _)m apologies (two hands on a table on either side of a bent-over head, eyes lowered)
(-_-; sweat (used when reporting how hard you worked or tried)

And as is the case with Western emoticons, there are Web pages full of variations, cute plays on words, and visual puns (such as :-$, meaning put your money where your mouth is), but most Japanese and Koreans use the limited set described above. If you try to be clever and make one up, you will probably find that your recipient doesn't know the meaning, which spoils the whole effect.

Oddly enough, these emoticons, which are in common use in Japan and Korea, haven't caught on yet in the Chinese-speaking regions, such as mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. E-mailers in these regions seem to be content to twist their necks along with the rest of the world.

Same Colleague, Different Address Form

I'm on a first-name basis with some faculty and staff, but only in e-mail. When I talk to colleagues in person, they are still Yamamoto-sensei (teacher) or Watanabe-san (Mr./Ms.), and I am still Robb-sensei. When exchanging e-mail in English, though, we can be Takeshi and Tom.

The reason for this difference may be that even when speaking English in Japan, people follow the Japanese custom for address forms. Somehow, in e-mail, these rules no longer apply; people are free to address others in the "English way."

English-Japanese Ping-Pong

Another odd thing: Often when I send e-mail in English to people who don't speak it, they write back in English. Even so, face-to-face communication with them is still completely in Japanese.

This switching back and forth isn't so surprising: When you are writing, you can take your time and look up unknown words in the dictionary. However, other people I write to read my English but respond in Japanese because they find it easier to read a foreign language than to write in it.

Tom Robb is a professor in the Department of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages, Kyoto Sangyo University, in Kyoto, Japan.