Paralanguage in Online Communication

by Cynthia Li

In 2005, a study was published which concluded that correct interpretation of emotive intent in textual e-mail communications, especially over humor or verbal irony, is little better than chance or 50/50 (Kruger 928). A typical example would be person B sending a message he thinks is funny and benign to person C, who becomes offended and appalled and refuses to speak to B for the next week. So what is the missing link?

In linguistics, we might call it paralanguage or nonverbal communication. For the purposes of this article, I will use the broadest definition of paralanguage, inclusive of both prosody and kinesics and covering all elements of human communication outside the actual use of structured language.

Prosody is the stress and intonation of speech. For example, stressing a single word or changing vocal volume can change both meaning and interpretation: "It's so exciting!" versus "It's so exciting." The former may be construed as sincere whereas the latter may be interpreted as sarcastic. The natural limitation of prosody in text is lack of representative ideography or standard typography. In online textual communications, it is not uncommon for individuals to apply stress and tonal qualities to their "written speech" with extra symbols such as asterisks or underscores, or rich text styles like italics or bold.

Kinesics is the area of body language, but this is hardly limited to wild gesticulation and shifting feet. Facial expression is actually a very important mode of body language that greatly enhances intended meaning behind speech, and many online users are familiar with "emoticons" to enhance or alter what they type: "You're such a moron," versus "You're such a moron. :-P" The latter may be interpreted as a joke with the addition of an emoticon.

The importance of paralanguage to humans cannot be underestimated. When considering how much of our communication is nonverbal, studies vary widely between 50% and 90% (Wikipedia). Suffice it to say, the general consensus in communication research is that at least half of all meaningful communication between and among humans occur at the nonverbal level. One reason why paralanguage has more bearing on textual online communication than in others is the time factor: Despite the obvious textual nature of online communication, due to the speed of the activity, whether synchronous or asynchronous, conversational informalities render the communications closer to casual speech. For this reason, the online community continually invents and adopts standards that facilitate paralanguage in text. Emoticons have enjoyed wide use for decades; acronyms of common paralinguistic actions like laughing have been popular for just as long.

It's important to differentiate "leet-speak" (sometimes 1337-speek or any other variation of the phrase) from online text paralanguage. Leet may be considered a sociolect or a lingo limited to a subculture. While the symbols and replacement characters used may appear to be acronyms, leet's primary purpose is not paralinguistic in nature.

Because online communication crosses the line between vocal speech and formal print text, the importance of paralanguage becomes more salient. And yet, because nonverbal communication is by nature unconscious, people tend to forget this, as evinced in Kruger and Epley's study; in their study, people attempted to write with irony and simply assumed that the reader would "get it." Half the time, the reader didn't. Adding paralinguistic cues can help with this interpretation.

But not all online communications require paralanguage. It is also important to distinguish the different types of textual communication used in the online environment. Hobby forum postings differ in nature from electronic magazine articles. In a study by Derks et al, participants were asked to respond to generated chat text with text, emoticon, or both. In more impersonal social situations ("task-oriented," i.e. work-related) that were "negative" in context, the participants used the least number of emoticons while positive and socializing contexts produced the most (Derks 846). When considering online communication and its role in spreading information as well as promoting social venues, all users young and old should be aware that paralanguage has a place.

Works Cited:

Kruger J., Epley N., Parker J., and Ng Z. W. "Egocentrism over e-mail: Can we communicate as well as we think?"
Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89.6 2005: 925-936.

Derks, D., Bos, A. E. R., and von Grumbkow, J. "Emoticons and social interaction on the Internet: the importance of social context."
Computers in Human Behavior, 23 (2007*): 842-849.
(Available 2004)


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