Chernobyl Smiles: Investigations in Punctuation Fallout

If there’s one trivial piece of knowledge that the traveler can attest to, it may just be this: city to city, country to country, we don’t all smile the same way. 

Did I say trivial? Perhaps I spoke too soon. After all, what says more about us at first glance than our face and the expression it bears? Granted, some smiles aren’t as sincere as others; some might be nothing more than barely concealed loathing. But the way we express ourselves, whether that expression turns the lips up, down, or not at all, nevertheless does say something.

It is from the 1990’s that the term “emoticon” originates. Not a surprise considering that this was the decade that personal computer use took off. As people began migrating to this new device and the World Wide Web it offered, they began looking for ways to express themselves much as we do face to face, with something other than words. The emoticon was born. The Oxford Dictionary gives us the following definition:

“A representation of a facial expression such as a smile or frown, formed by various combinations of keyboard characters and used in electronic communications to convey the writer’s feelings or intended tone.”

For the sake of brevity I won’t get into the history of the emoticon. Truth be told it’s not that interesting anyway. What I did want to talk about is a peculiar emoticon that, for lack of an existing name, I have dubbed the Chernobyl Smiley.

The Chernobyl Smiley is used by hundreds of millions of users when communicating on the Internet. So what is the Chernobyl Smiley, and why haven’t you ever seen it? 

Much like the infamous Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant itself, the Chernobyl Smiley is something you’ll only come across if you happen to find yourself in the farthest regions of Eastern Europe – or interacting with someone from there. Those who frequent Russian chat rooms and marriage websites know what I’m talking about. Why do I call it the Chernobyl Smiley? Because, as it consists solely of a parenthesis ), the Chernobyl Smiley seems to have lost its other facial features somewhere along the way. No eyes, no nose, simply a mouth. A mouth then used in precisely the way we would use a normal smiley face:

) when happy

( when sad

All said, the Chernobyl Smiley is a thing of fascinating simplicity. 

I still remember my initial surprise seeing it, in 2008, when chatting with a young Russian girl I’d met online (certainly a trap we all fall into at some point). Initially, I’d assumed it was just a typo, but when it persisted, multiplying in number so that messages like ))))))))) became the norm, I knew the Oxford Dictionary’s “intended tone” was in play.

Four years and a long distance relationship later I had all but forgotten about the lonely little parenthesis, then in January 2012 I landed in Ukraine. Finding a local acquaintance online, I soon saw the familiar )))) staring back at me from my laptop screen and the memories – along with the intrigue – came flooding back.

What explains this odd, eyeless smiley?

I began scouring my friend list for Eastern European friends and former students that might be able to provide some insight. Interestingly enough, the first people I asked, in the Czech Republic and Hungary, said they never used the smiley and rarely ever saw it. The only person I could find in the former Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan who reported using the smiley was Elnara, a former student of mine who herself had moved to Azerbaijan from Russia several years ago. She didn’t shed any light on the origins of the Chernobyl Smiley, using it only because, in her words, she was “lazy”.

Were all its users just lazy then? After all, hitting the same ) key is easier than having to add a colon and, if you’re a real perfectionist, a hyphen. Nevertheless, it’s a bit ironic that speakers of Russian, one of the world’s more difficult and complex languages, find hitting an extra key or two more exhausting than they can handle.

Mari from Estonia was similarly at a loss, reporting that while she herself had never used the Chernobyl Smiley she had seen it used by Russians online.

“[One reason] it’s not popular here could be due to the fact that the Russian and mixed population here in Estonia exist within the Estonian cultural sphere.”

As to the origins of the Chernobyl Smiley, Mari added: “My guess is that it’s related to the fact that most people I know that use these have been into Japanese pop culture at some point in their lives and think it’s somehow cuter or something.”

However, a search for Japanese emoticons (and a lifetime of reading Haruki Murakami) turned up a wide array of “face marks” but not the sole parenthesis I was after.

Olga from Moscow was more helpful. She started using the emoticon when she was 14, influenced by friends. She cleared up any lingering confusion I had regarding the multiple )))) use of the Chernobyl Smiley.

“The number of ))) defines the loudness of laughter,” she explained. “When I am calm I usually put one) like in: Hello). When I want to show(!) that I am in a good mood and very friendly I usually put two ) like in: How are you?)).” Or, if something is particularly amusing, many. As in “has she forgotten to put on a skirt?)))))))))))))).”

The Chernobyl Smiley can be used with just as much ease to express a feeling of awkwardness or inadequacy.

“There are some cases when I use two of them in order to apologize for my incompetence in something. Like I am saying: I am not good at it, sorry)) e.g. I didn’t pass my exam! well, I didn’t prepare well)).”

Victoria from Lviv, a city in Western Ukraine, agreed.

“Yeah, multiple )))) means I am smiling a bit longer than usual so it seems to me like just happy smile. 😊 [doesn’t] illustrate the duration, this smile 😊 just smiled and stopped))))) but mine continues))))”

An odd enough pattern had started to develop. Throughout all of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, only Russians and Ukrainians routinely used the Chernobyl Smiley (I unfortunately wasn’t able to get in touch with any Belorussians, though it’s safe to assume with the cultural similarities they might use it as well). Georgians didn’t use it, Latvians, Lithuanians, Slovaks, Poles, and Czechs didn’t use it. The sole exception seemed to be when the user had emigrated from Ukraine or Russia or had a strong personal connection to one of those two countries.

It seemed the Chernobyl Smiley was a uniquely Russian/Ukrainian phenomenon. But why?

Victoria chimed in once again.

“I guess I started using it in 2008 when I registered on VKontakte (a hugely popular Russian social media site – roughly equivalent to Facebook). Possibly that’s why it’s used only in Ukraine and Russia.”

Is the Russian Facebook to blame then for pioneering the Chernobyl Smiley? There is an interesting correlation between the popularity of the site itself and the Chernobyl Smiley. Facebook itself has only just started to gain a serious following in this part of the world and boasts a comparatively small 13 million Russian users. VK (as the Russian social networking site is also known) remains far more popular, with over 47 million users in Russia alone. Georgians, Azeris, and residents of the Baltic countries I contacted had all heard of VK, some even had accounts themselves, but of that number, all had Facebook accounts as well. Does the prevalence of Western sites like Facebook have something of a dulling effect on Russian cultural trends?

Whether it’s due to Russian social media, culture, laziness, or a nearly 30-year old nuclear disaster, the Chernobyl Smiley doesn’t appear to be on the wane. On the contrary, it’s so addictive that many of the American and English expats I know here have taken to using it in online correspondence. Even I have to catch myself sometimes.

In the end, the most telling stat is the one we don’t have. Because regardless of whether you choose to express online happiness with

🙂

🙂

)))))))))

or any other conceivable variant, true happiness is something that can’t be conveyed with mere punctuation.

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2 comments

  1. I’d always wondered about that too, Brendan! But ) still feels accidental to me, I usually stick with the whole 🙂 What about you?

    1. I feel the same way, Katherine! It just doesn’t look right to me, even now. I’m a standard 🙂 kind of guy.

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