Culture is a very complex concept. When we are asked to describe or define our own culture, most people would begin to explain traditions, holidays, food, music, dance… maybe even venturing into values, stereotypes, family structures, institutions, education, and so on. Over the past two months living in Spain, I have realized there is one component to modern culture that has been far too overlooked. We don’t analyze it, we don’t talk about it, and we don’t study it despite the fact that it is a very relevant part of our lives. We use it every day to express ourselves, it can be seen in several forms of media, and there’s even a movie about it.
Emojis. Emojis. Emojis. WOW are there some real cultural barriers in this method of communication. Honestly, I am not sure I will ever understand how Spanish people use them. What I do know is that it has caused some serious confusion between people of different cultures. It is such an integral part of how we engage in conversation and adds an entirely unique dimension to how we express feelings. After all, 😂 has been the word of the year for good reason. My understanding of emoji usage is an ongoing investigation, but here’s the conclusions I’ve come to so far.
TOP FIVE EMOJIS USED IN SPAIN AND WHAT I *THINK* THEY MEAN IN EACH CULTURE
US: Cool, as in sounds good, roger that, awesome. Used as an affirmation or positive acknowledgement that the information has been well-received or understood.
SPAIN: Cool, as in alright that’s enough, fine, whatever. Used as a dismissive affirmation that the information has been delivered and you should probably stop talking.
PROBLEM: Yeah so I basically told someone their Halloween costume was lame and that they were annoying me by talking about it, when I was trying to tell them it was a really good idea.
US: kisses, as in flirting, talking to your spouse/partner, expressing romantic affection.
SPAIN: kisses, as in a very normal goodbye, a platonic way to end a conversation.
PROBLEM: Is this person trying to hit on me?! Why would they send me the kiss-y face?! Have I been totally oblivious to this the whole time??? This is so uncomfortable. I don’t even know how to respond.
US: clapping….? applause…..? does anyone ever use this???
SPAIN: clapping, as in applause for excitement, encouragement, and/or amusement. Best used in 3’s.
PROBLEM: I think they’re cheering me on… not entirely sure, but I hope they aren’t making fun of me.
raise the roof? I don’t think I’ve ever seen any American use this one either EDIT: I have been informed that this is used to mean ‘praise the lord’ or ‘thank goodness’
SPAIN: ‘yeahhh buddy’, as in let’s go, that’s awesome/amazing, good work.
PROBLEM: I can’t see this emoji without wanting to raise both of my hands several times in a row.
US: 100 percent positive that no American has ever even noticed the existence of this emoji.
SPAIN: oh man that’s the best, the good one, the ultimate.
PROBLEM: I think it’s a direct translation (if we consider emoji to be a distinct language) from the Spanish phrase ‘a tope’ which means something like ‘all out’ or ‘to the maximum’. We don’t really have these one or two-word phrases to express encouragement and positive vibes and energy and motivation all in one. Totally loving this idea, especially when combined with the hands up, and therefore “up, up, top” has become part of my expat vernacular. Yes, the hand movement is an essential part here too.
Alright, hopefully you’re now aware of ANOTHER factor involved in cross-cultural communication. 😨 Good luck navigating it! 🤞 My advice is to ask more experienced expat friends to translate for you. 😉 Sooner rather than later. ⏰ Then add it to your own texting terminology. 😎