无语😓:cultural incompetence is also cross-generational

I recently downloaded this sheet of Covid stickers and emoticons. I really like them because they reference specific features of Shenzhen’s experience during the February and March 2022 Omicron outbreak. However, I haven’t yet used any of them because I’m feeling nervous about being called out for cultural incompetence if I misuse them. Or even more scary is that I won’t be called out and I’ll just continue making the same mistake over and over again. That said, I don’t actually want to use emoticons enough that I am willing to learn how to use them by stumbling along and making mistakes. And there’s the rub: emoticons don’t actually resonate with me. They’re just part of a dialect that I recognize has overtaken me, but even so, I haven’t really put in any effort to learn.

So why don’t I emote-icon with confidence? What am I missing when chosen family and friends insert emoticons into a dialog? And why do I feel more comfortable writing in 普通话 than I do texting in either English or Mandarin?

First thoughts: My emotional infrastructure is a strange hybrid of Chimerican responses. On the one hand, in practice ‘going with my gut’ means following emotions that were fleshed out in the Jersey suburbs during the last century. 😂. On the other hand, I’ve lived in Shenzhen specifically and East Asia more generally for over half my life. Indeed, I have been based in Shenzhen for the first decades of the 21st century. ❤️!! Not surprisingly, even if I haven’t ‘gone native’ as the anthro-crowd likes to say, I have adapted to local structures of feeling, choosing family and making friends in meaningful ways. However, as mobility is increasingly curtailed through zero-Covid protocols, I’ve noticed even more reliance on online conventions to navigate relationships. And frankly, I’m feeling incompetent. 😅.

For example, it’s taken me a while to figure out what 无语😓 means. I understand it as a commentary analogous to ‘wtf’–to be used in times of cognitive dissonance, expressing the disconnect between my expectations of what should have happened and what actually did. However, in WeChat groups and weibo feeds, sometimes I see 无语 and I don’t actually know what the implied expectation is and/ or how that expectation has been transgressed.

In turn, this means I haven’t yet worked up the confidence to use 无语 or 😓 in a text because I still don’t intuitively get the relationship between the words and the emoticon. The 无语 emoticon makes me think that being speechless is the experience of feeling unhappy and sweating awkwardly. And there’s the rub. When I use ‘wtf,’ I’m expressing distaste and displeasure, so yes, unhappy. But maybe I’m misinterpreting the anxieties that cultural transgressions produce? Is 无语 more accurately the equivalent of what the kids mean when they use ‘cringe‘ in online discourse? Does 无语 mean that I’m feeling embarrassed for someone when they don’t realize that they’ve transgressed? Or does 无语 mean ‘cringe’ in its contemptuous usage as when online comments use ‘cringe’ to express distain for a person and/ or action…But then again, if its distain, why the sweat? Where’s the social pressure coming from?

I’m also not sure if the problem is generational. I remember that over a decade ago, I gifted nieces and nephews a Japanese-language wii that was produced in Shenzhen, and within half an hour they could play the games. They didn’t rely on written instructions to figure out the games, but intuited the rules based on previous experiences. Kind of like the intuition that can lead you to a restroom in a mall… This intuition is shaped not only by language, but also through ongoing interaction with a larger environment that allows one to make educated and generally appropriate guesses about what to do. And that’s the blackhole in my linguistic repertoire. I don’t have an intuitive sense of when to insert an emoticon or gif into a texty dialogue, let alone select the appropriate image. Indeed, I was over thirty years old when I got my first cellphone and therefore never texted my way through the uncertainties and euphorias of a relationship. Instead, I seem to have this frustratingly passive knowledge about emoticons. I generally understand, for example, what others mean when they use particular emoticons. But. In context, I would have written out words or decided it was time to facetime.

And maybe that’s the point of friction. I look at emoticons and perceive them through an out-of-date visual rhetoric that relies more on written language than it does on digitalized communication. It may also exacerbate my misconception of what emoticons actually do in texty discourses. After all, my first impulse has been to translate these images, an impulse which was adapted to another linguistic context. So in texty situations, while I may be reasonably confident that I have understood what has been posted to me, I don’t necessarily know what sticker to use in reply in without inadvertently confusing my interlocutor. 😝.

2 thoughts on “无语😓:cultural incompetence is also cross-generational

  1. I notice the intended message of my emoticon didn’t get across when I communicate with my parents’ generation. For example, when I use the ‘smiling without saying a thing’ emoticon 🙂, I mean to express ‘I know what you’re up to but I’m not exposing you’ or ‘I disagree but I will be quiet and pleasant.’ But for quite a long time, they thought that I was genuinely smiling whenever I used it.

    On the ‘speechless’ emoticon, this is my guess: it may have something to do with Japanese animation culture. In animes, when a character is in an awkward situation, often there will be a couple of lines of sweat on the side of their head. That may explains why younger generations have this intuition-like ability to use this emoticon ‘correctly’, as they have plenty of anime memories for references.

    Also, there’s this word ‘汗顏’ (Cantonese: hon6 ngan4; mandarin: hàn yán), firstly used by poet Han Yu of Tang Dynasty but it’s still very much in use today. The two characters literally means ‘sweaty face’, and describe a situation where one sweats due to shame or embarrassment. (Originally embarrassed for oneself; in modern usage, embarrassed for others as well.) Perhaps that emoticon is a visualisation of that word.

    • This is helpful, thank you. It also explains why many of my older friends prefer to use stickers, especially because many come “labeled” with the word or phase that they replace.

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