I would reckon that every person was confused about the tone of a text message they received at least once in their lives. What did that person mean to say? Was it supposed to be light-hearted or serious? This can lead to miscommunication or misinterpretation of the intended message, resulting in an awkward situation where the interlocutors are not necessarily on the same page.
This dissonance between conveyed and interpreted meaning is especially common in online contexts. Text-based social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook are full of posts consisting of phrasing that could be ambiguous or difficult to interpret, especially with the lack of paralinguistic cues, such as body language or facial expression. This post will discuss three methods commonly used on the internet to convey nonverbal cues, as well as their effectiveness.
We cannot start the discussion on tone signifiers without mentioning the OG—punctuation! Out of the three discussed, this is the oldest and most common way of conveying meaning—the ellipsis ‘…’ marks uncertainty, the exclamation mark ‘!’ shows excitement or other heightened emotions like anger, and so on. They are taught to every person when they start reading or writing and are widely used in all kinds of publications, books, announcements, and online posts. However, they have gained new meanings for the younger generations—some people, for example, consider ending a message with a full stop to mean that the person is mad. This may lead to some misunderstandings between different age groups.
From … to 🙄
Social media users have found a few methods to work around the issues of their medium and visibly represent nonverbal cues. Of course, we must mention emoticons. By using emojis or emoticons, you can disambiguate the meaning of a message or specify that you are being sarcastic1. An eye-rolling emoji ‘🙄’ signifies annoyance, while a smiling emoji ‘🙂’ equals happiness.
Or does it?
Another problem arises—emojis and emoticons themselves can be used ironically or in new ways. A smiling emoji nowadays can often be perceived as passive-aggresive, while a skull emoji does not actually mean someone died, but that the user finds something extremely funny. With this additional layer of context on top of words, not being up to date on the trends regarding emoji usage can cause even more confusion and miscommunication.
From 🙄 to /s
Tone indicators are paralinguistic cues represented in the form of a tone tag that specifies the meaning of the message. Common examples include:
- /s — sarcasm
- /j — joke
- /srs — serious
- /gen or /g — genuine
- /neg — negative
- /pos — positive
And the list goes on. Using tone indicators greatly reduces the possibility of misinterpretation, especially when used on heavily sarcastic platforms such as Twitter. They are particularly helpful for neurodivergent individuals who have trouble picking up on nonverbal cues and might feel overwhelmed or anxious when trying to understand the context of online messages. In comparison to punctuation or emojis, these tone indicators cannot be easily re-evaluated to have a different meaning, making them more consistent.
However, because they are quite new and used on specific platforms, they are not as widely understood as the previous two and require familiarising with. Furthermore, the sheer amount of them can be off-putting, as lists of tone indicators posted on Twitter can contain up to or over 20 different abbreviations.
In summary, each method of expressing nonverbal cues has its pros and cons in regards to accessibility, effectiveness and consistency. A text-only environment, while easily accessible, comes with its own set of limitations, and it is really difficult to communicate nonverbal cues without paralinguistic elements. For that reason, the convenience of interpretation in face-to-face communication is almost impossible to recreate in an online context.