Emotional words

Early last year Facebook introduced the option of tagging your status updates with an indication of how you feel. You select from a menu to indicate if you are happy, bored, irritated — that kind of thing — and there’s a smiley that goes with each feeling. It was introduced as a trial, but is still there. I only see occasional messages tagged with smileys. So perhaps it’s not that popular, at least among the British.

It’s pretty “un-British” really to indulge in such crude indicators of emotion. I’ve caught up with Kate Fox’s book on the hidden rules of English (sic.) behaviour. (I think she’s referring to WASPs.) She tells the story of how after the tragic 7/7 London bombings in 2005 Americans set up an online forum called “London Hurts” with the tagline, “Today I’m a Londoner and today I hurt.”

Amidst the messages of sympathy from around the world, actual Londoners posted messages such as, “If you’re all Londoners today that’s eight quid each for the congestion charge,” and “Southwark cathedral was a bit shaken, and went down the pub with the Imperial War Museum last night.” Her point of course is that Brits don’t take emotions that seriously, or pretend not to, or perhaps they are circumspect about how and where they give vent to their emotions.

Preeminently cultural

On a more serious note, I’ve been reading academic articles by anthropologist Catherine Lutz on cultural differences, not just in the way emotions get expressed, but identified, talked about and used. Many people think that emotions are basic, somehow natural, and understood by everyone. So we all know what it is to feel grief, happiness, anger etc. These basic emotions unite us all. The categories get a bit ropey however when we start using terms like thankful, drained, confident, or gutted.

As an anthropologist Lutz examined the way certain groups in the South Pacific exhibited and reported emotional experience. She makes the strong claim that emotional experience is not “precultural, but preeminently cultural.”

In her book Unnatural Emotions, she says, “the concepts of emotion can more profitably be viewed as serving complex communicative, moral, and cultural purposes rather than simply as labels for internal states whose nature or essence is presumed to be universal. The pragmatic and associative networks of meaning in which each emotion word is embedded are extremely rich ones. The complex meaning of each emotion word is the result of the important role those words play in articulating the full range of a people’s cultural values, social relations, and economic circumstances. Talk about emotions is simultaneously talk about society — about power and politics, about kinship and marriage, about normality and deviance …” (pp. 5-6)

So I guess smileys don’t really capture that!



  • The default list of Facebook feelings is: happy, excited, blessed, tired, relaxed, sad, amused, emotional, loved, proud, annoyed, fed up, fantastic, content, sick, determined, pained, bored, cold, exhausted, confused, thankful, nervous, frustrated, stressed, meh, cosy, drained, depressed, accomplished, angry, wonderful, hungry, ill, positive, upset, scared, lonely, stuffed, sleepy, down, hungover, hopeful, shattered, irritated, lucky, in love, grateful, sore, awesome, undecided, nostalgic, crazy, optimistic, lost, fat, heartbroken, blah, relieved, amazing, full, great, ecstatic, gutted, satisfied, hot, crappy, refreshed, rough, ready, productive, disappointed, anxious, grumpy, shocked, mischievous, worried, motivated, special, impatient, lazy, good, stupid, curious, broken, super, furious, alone, disgusted, embarrassed, devastated, giddy, unwell, aggravated, better, overwhelmed, awake, restless, wet, energised, bad, blissful, sorry, pretty, cool, free, safe, guilty, lovely, hurt, thoughtful, funny, alive, confident, beautiful, surprised, sexy, fresh, add your own.
  • I’m uncomfortable with national stereotypes of the kind amplified by Kate Fox, especially considering the diversity of what goes on in these islands, and its ethnic diversity, assuming it stays that way.
  • The picture is a building detail in Riga, Latvia.


  • Fox, Kate. 2014. Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder and Stoughton. (First published in 2004.)
  • Lutz, Catherine, and Geoffrey M White. 1986. The anthropology of emotions. Annual Review of Anthropology, (15)405-436.
  • Lutz, Catherine. 1998. Unnatural Emotions: Everyday Sentiments on a Micronesian Atoll and their Challenge to Western Theory. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
  • Lutz, Catherine. 1988. Emotion, thought, and estrangement: Emotion as a cultural category. Cultural Anthropology, (1) 3, 287-309.


  1. an_kar says:


  2. an_kar says:


    sorry; i couldn’t resist posting the above..!

    Your article made me also think of the cases where emotion smilies are used. When and why? Are they used because they are quick?/ for very simple responses? (i.e. just ‘yes’, ‘ok’, etc) / to avoid really responding in more detail and precision? Could they then be compared with a very limited vocabulary – and regarded as such?

    Your article also brings up questions regarding a range of other similar smilies and little images, small animations, etc used in platforms such as Facebook, Viber, WhatsUp; little images of hearts, sun, stars, palm tree, beer, flower, gift, car, football ball, etc – meant to replace words? meant to be the most common visuals to be used in an everyday conversation/ to describe our life? scary if I think of those coming up on my phone..!

    1. Thanks An_Kar. I recall there’s been a fair bit written about emoticons dating from the early days of CMC — computer-mediated communication. The app/service called Yo is interesting. Apparently just one word gets transmitted (yo) that can mean practically anything depending on the context as understood by sender and receiver. It reminds me of research by Jonathan Donner where mobile phone users would communicate simply by dialling then hanging up.

      Donner, Jonathan. 2005. What can Be said with a missed call? Beeping via mobile phones in sub-Saharan Africa. In K. Nyíri (ed.), Proc. Seeing, Understanding, Learning in the Mobile Age: 267-276. Budapest: Institute for Philosophical Research of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and T-Mobile Hungary Co Ltd.

  3. Jungna says:

    Reblogged this on take my purse.

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