The following post is from guest contributor Nicky Kim , a Seoul-based Korean-British blogger exploring Korea’s social trends and everyday quirks.
One day I received this text. (Translated from Korean)
Hello~ We are so grateful for your service! Please let us know if you need any further assistance^^ Have a nice day ^0^*
It was a corporate message. In England it is unthinkable to use so many emoticons in a text, especially in a business one. Symbols and emoticons seem too casual, unprofessional and silly, but in Korea they are essential.
Why Are Symbols And Emoticons So Important?
Tone of voice is important in European languages, but it is so much more influential to the meaning of words in Korean. When speaking with someone face-to-face, slight movements of the head, hands and eyes are adjusted, while intonation, volume and inflections are controlled to show respect. Symbols help express the tone by mimicking the speaking voice. It ensures that the message clearly reads in a positive and polite way.
The use of these symbols cannot be mistaken as simply ‘cute’ and ‘adolescent’ as even advertisements, businesses and old men use them too. At least 180 Korean companies use emoticons and symbols in marketing and PR to maintain good customer service. Koreans may be making more conscious decisions to show warmth through their communications.
Most Commonly Used Symbols
English Name: Tilde (~)
Korean Name: ‘mool gyul pyo’ 물결표
Function: A useful symbol which expresses an upward intonation or elongated vowel. It is especially used for short words as it gives a positive sing-song tone.
Example: The Korean word for yes, ‘neh’ (네) through text can seem serious, curt and almost reluctant, whereas ‘neh~’ (네~) sounds more agreeable as it mimics a positive sounding response through the elongated vowel.
English Name: Caret (^^)
Korean Name: ‘talja kiho’ 탈자 기호
Function: When used as a pair, it represents smiling eyes. This is used instead of a smiley face emoji.
Example: This can be used when a message is cheerful, ‘on my way^^’.
Korean Name: The Korean letter for the vowel ‘yu’ (ㅠㅠ )
Function: When used as a pair it symbolises tears streaming down eyes, which is an exaggeration of the sad face emoji. Some people even use this in real conversation and say ‘yuyu’, similar to how youth articulate ‘lol’ out loud.
Example: This can be used in any circumstance when the message is unhappy, ‘I’m so tired ㅠㅠ’.
Korean Name: The Korean letter for ‘k’ (ㅋㅋ)
Function: It is the Korean version of ‘ha ha’, as it is the symbol for laughing. The ‘ㅋ’/’k’ is not pronounced hard like /kei/, instead it is soft like /kuh/. The ‘kuh kuh’ is the sound of stifled laughter or giggling.
Example: This was the hardest to get used to, not because it is difficult to understand, but because it was used excessively. Sometimes it is used appropriately, ‘He thought the wasabi was one mushy pea! ㅋㅋㅋㅋ’. However sometimes it is used even if the context isn’t funny, ‘I live in Seoul too ㅋㅋㅋㅋ’. In these instances it is used to simply lighten the conversation.
At first I was intrigued when I received what would be considered a professional message peppered with so many emoticon symbols. It may be uncomfortable at first, but once you adjust, texting without symbols and emoticons seems insincere and almost rude. These images help to fully express the messengers feelings and clearly indicate the tone to the receiver.
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