I am currently chatting in an IRC and there is one girl (i think she's about 18 years old) and she has Asperger syndrome and therefore is unable to understand countenance and feelings. She told me that she only knows of happiness, sadness and rage but doesn't really understand what each means.

Furthermore the other people use emoticons like :), :(, >:[, ^^, ... and she really has problems to follow the discussion because she is really confused about all of this and when I tell her what each emoticon means five minutes later she will not be able to distinguish between these.

Do you have any suggestions on what to do to reassure her and maybe help her a bit so that she could enjoy the chat like everyone else, more or less? (Although I know she won't understand everything...)

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ She has access to the internet and she has access to your explanations. If she cannot search, use or remember the information for five minutes, I don't think you will be able to teach her this via IRC. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 4, 2012 at 7:33
  • $\begingroup$ @OriesokVlassky Sure? I don't think I have ever seen explanations, only definitions... $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 21:20
  • $\begingroup$ I am a very erudite language obsessed Aspie and I know what emoticons are and how they are used, to me a simple prosaic idea that lends extra meaning to what we write; BUT while knowing all of that, I am still unsure of the 'meaning' of most uses of them! I know that ;) means that what is said is said with a wink; or that :P is the tongue sticking out; but I have very little idea, very little understanding, of what is meant by the writer when he uses one. $\endgroup$
    – user2347
    Commented Nov 2, 2012 at 16:11
  • $\begingroup$ Two comments: 1) actually emoticons are explicit information, unlike someone smiling or showing sadness, so they may be not hard to explain 2) I don't think that people use emoticons in exact way (much alike facial expressions). $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ So, the actual problem is in explaining emoticons or emotions? $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 12, 2013 at 10:07

4 Answers 4


First question, how deep is your knowledge about autism and Asperger Syndrome? Do you understand how autistic people think? Do you understand, what this girl have meant, when she have written, she doesn't really understand what each means?

For neurotypical person, a typical use-case for I understand you phrase is I know what you feel. But autistic people by understand mean in the first line to know the cause-and-effect. So your friend saying she don't understand what really each emotion means, could as good mean: I don't know how particular emotions are affecting the meaning of words the given person use.

If you want to explain emoticons to her, you should IMHO in first line explain, how particular emoticon in modifying the meaning of the sentence. So, think of emiticons not as the way to communicate emotions (which is of low importance to autistic people) but as the modifiers that change the meaning of the sentence or of the particular words.

  • $\begingroup$ Wow! That explanation of what neurotypicals mean by I understand you is very enlightening to me! Maybe I should consider using this Q&A to learn more about neurotypicals :) (Yes I do understand emoticons) $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 20:53

I'd like to expand on volkerjaan's answer. I am Asperger myself. I know what :-), ;-) and ;-( mean (though I know ^^ only as see above). I don't necessarily understand when people are using them. I do understand their origins, and I suspect that is what the question boils down to.

To explain what they mean:

  • :-) — person feels happy
  • :-( — person feels sad
  • ;-) — person is joking

To follow the conversation, it is not needed to understand the meaning. It is enough to know the meaning. In my interpretation, understanding is related to why. As an Asperger, the ability for abstraction is often different from those in neurotypicals. So I would explain it as follows.

Emoticon explanation for Asperger

When we draw a face, we like to simplify things. For example, sometimes we draw only a circle with dots for the eyes, and a line for the mouth. For example, from the Wikipedia article on smiley:

Drawing of a smiley

This represents a face in an abstract way. The face is happy, because the edges of the mouth are turned upward. Of course, a real face looks very different. However, this is an abstract representation of a happy face. For an unhappy face, the edges of the mouth would go down.

When we are on IRC, or in another text-only medium, we do not use pictures. Therefore, we need to make drawings in a different way. One way to make drawings on IRC is by using characters normally used for other things. This is what we do when we use emoticons.

A emoticon is a sideways drawing of a face. To see it in the correct orientation, turn your head to the left, so that you see the : or the ; on top, the - in the middle and the ) or ( at the bottom.

  • In :-), when turned side-ways, we see three parts: first the :, then the -, and finally the ).

    • The : represents the eyes. They are two black dots (depending on your viewer) like in the picture of the smiley below.

    • The - represents the nose. The nose is not shown in the smiley before. Sometimes, it is not shown in emoticons either, and people write :) instead of :-). People are lazy~

    • Finally, the ) represents the mouth. Like in the smiley above, the edges of the mouth are turned upward. This means happy.

  • For :-(, the first two parts are the same: : are the eyes and - is the nose. The third character is different:

    • The ( in this smiley represents again the mouth, but now the edges of the mouth are turned downward. This is a representation of being sad.
  • The third emoticon is ;-). It is again similar to the first one, :-), but now the first character is different.

    • Remember how : represented the eyes. In this case, ; represents the eyes, but with a wink. The ; consists of something that looks like . and something that looks like ,. The . is the open eye and the , represents the closed eye. This is strange: why is the closed eye larger than the open eye? It should be the other way around! Yes, it should. Even if it is wrong, people use ; when they mean: two eyes, one of the two is closed. When one of the two eyes is closed, it is a wink.

People use the wink when they mean I am joking.

There are many other emoticons, but those are the most used ones. There is a list on Wikipedia. This lists the meanings, but it does not explain any of them. I don't know if there is a website anywhere with explanations. Sometimes, you just need to accept what it means, without understanding them. But I hope that my description above explains the most common ones.


The most succint way to explain emoticons is that they are an expression of informal rating on a person's recent comments.

:) represents, as Omoe said, a informal expression of pleasure at something which has just been expressed.

:( a contextual informal 'unhappiness'.

Emoticons are just 'up-votes' and 'down-votes'. They have nothing to do with real emotions. There is a good reason that people prior to the advent of Internet 'talk' and 'chat' wrote real sentences.. their words cost something to put on paper. They were meaningful.

  • $\begingroup$ I think the point of the question was how to explain the concepts of things like 'pleasure' and 'unhappiness' rather than deciphering what the :) and :( signify. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 3, 2012 at 3:36

:) (also spelled :-))

A modifier meaning that someone is happy or want to relieve.


I was a really nice day :).

Don't worry, you will pass the exam :).

:( (also spelled: :-()

A modifier that someone is sad or wants to say sorry.


...and then I spilt all milk :(.

I couldn't do it for you :(.

;) (also spelled: ;-))

A modifier saying that someone is joking or laughing, or to not take something serious.

Warning: sometimes it can mean that someone makes an ironic comment.


And then she sit on the chair with a pin... ;)

Which pages do you need for the assignment? 105-121... or wait, not - you need to read the whole book! ;)


(I'm not sure if I get it right, since it's less common) - excited, surprised, astonished, flirting.


I met this cute guy ^^.

They announced the winners and, guess what, they read my name ^^.


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