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[Weekender] Receptions of emoticons different by generation

June 9, 2017 - 16:36 By Son Ji-hyoung

Emoticons on mobile messengers have pandered to young South Koreans’ taste, becoming an inseparable part of their lives.

But in a nation lush with ready-made emoticon packages, which cost some 3,000 won ($2.67) per package, perceptions or reactions to them can differ between generations, sometimes causing communication issues.

Bae Hyeon-ji, 27, as many others her age, has a penchant for emoticons she finds “cute and fresh.”

Having three to four new emoticon bundles ready for use each year, Bae, who works at a local law firm, feels like they grow outdated too fast.

“I just get fed up with using the same set of emoticons over and over again,” she said. Bae added that in online conversations with family and friends, emoticons “often replace text.”

Bae’s mother Song Myung-sook, in contrast, says text suffices, and that using emoticons can be a “hassle.”

A snapshot of a chat room between Bae Hyeon-ji and her mother Song Myung-sook via mobile messenger KakaoTalk. (courtesy of Bae Hyeon-ji)
“I try new emoticons in the first few days after buying them, but I soon found (the behavior) bothersome,” the 55-year-old said.

South Korea’s top mobile messenger operators regularly crank out new emoticons for anyone with the app to buy and use.

The number of accumulated emoticon packages available on KakaoTalk surged tenfold over four years to some 4,800 as of 2016.

Some 14 million people, or over a quarter of South Korea’s population, have bought the packages from Kakao, which quintupled over the cited period. Among them, just 28.4 percent were estimated to be over the age of 40.

Inevitable as they are, emoticons did not fit her age, Song learned. She often did not bother to use them in chats with her daughter, even when her daughter used them incessantly.

“Many emoticons (out for purchase) seem to be for non-adults,” she said. “I doubt they would be worth spending time and money on.”

Like Bae and Song, Koreans of different generations tend to perceive the emoticons differently.

To the young generation, emoticons are tools to enrich online conversations, while the older generation finds less need to sugarcoat the chats.

Billboard ads featuring Line Friends characters are displayed at Times Square in New York City. Line Firends plans to open its first US store in the area in August. (Line Friends)
With emoticons gaining a foothold, academic circles have looked into the intergenerational rift.

A 2016 study from Sogang University found that there’s a generational divide when it comes to interpreting emoticons, triggering “misunderstandings” in interpersonal communications.

Out of 13 “basic” emoticons from the nation‘s most popular mobile messenger, seven were “comprehensible,” while the other six could lead to “misunderstanding.” Five of the seven comprehensible emoticons were frequently used by the older generation.

Moreover, the survey-based study implied that the generations had few common emoticons used between them in conversations, which the study picked as one of the limitations.

Teenagers and 20-somethings tend to avoid using basic emoticon bundles with KakaoTalk and instead pay for new ones, while those in their 40s tend to adhere to basic emoticons they find easy to use and friendly.

Another study in 2014 from Hanyang University showed those over 40 preferred emoticons carrying straightforward meanings to ones with more emotions.

The study suggested emoticon designers introduce a user interface tailored to those in their 40s and older, pointing out that current emoticons reflect the taste of the younger generation.

By Son Ji-hyoung (