(Liz Blodgett/Emerald)

Opinion: The use of tone indicators has been increasing on popular social media sites TikTok and Instagram, causing some to rejoice and others to question the different notations' meanings.


Have you ever seen an Instagram comment which was so out of place that you couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not? Or have you ever received a complimentary message from someone and been unable to tell if they were flirting with you? Do you commonly struggle to interpret a speaker’s tone online? Without being able to hear one’s words being spoken or witness their facial expression as they’re communicating, it can be difficult to understand the tone of a digital message.

According to a study by Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at University of California, Los Angeles, only 7% of emotional communication is conveyed through words themselves. Tone of voice accounts for 38%, and the remaining 55% comes from body language and facial expressions, all of which are lost in a text message. To bridge this gap, people have begun to use notation online to indicate what their tone of voice may be.

Tone indicators are abbreviated terms or characters following a slash mark at the end of a sentence to clarify how one intends for their statement to be read. For instance, one could write “How dare you? /j” to indicate they are joking in their accusation. While the notation could be helpful for anybody, they have been largely embraced by the online neurodivergent community, as some individuals with autism spectrum disorder or similar conditions may struggle to interpret tonal cues in conversation.

After the past few years of miscommunication and turmoil online, we should all be making the effort to be as clear with the intent of our speech as possible, no matter how clunky one might think it looks.

We’ve been attempting to get similar notation to catch on for centuries, but it’s never quite worked. For instance, the “percontation mark,” a reversed question mark, was created in 1575 to indicate a rhetorical question, and an inverted exclamation point was proposed to indicate irony in 1668. Neither of these notations caught on quite as well as tone indicators have, which is likely due to the fact that the modern tone indicators cover a wider array of emotions. Nowadays, it’s not unlikely to see /j or /s in the comment section of a TikTok or Instagram post.

There are other methods to display one’s tone online, such as emojis. However, this tonal communication may be lost in translation due to how different communities utilize the same icons to different things. Alisa Freedman, professor of Japanese literature, cultural studies and gender, has devoted much of her research to the study of online language and the use of emojis to communicate information.

“It’s so hard to read the tone online,” Freedman said. “Texting can really help a lot of communication; it can save us time. But it can also add a lot of misunderstandings.”

Unlike tone indicators, which have distinct and concise definitions, emojis can foster interpretation-based confusion. Do you use the clown face emoji to convey that you’re joking or that you feel foolish? Does the hot face emoji describe how you feel in 80-degree weather or when you see an attractive person? There’s no need to fear such misinterpretations when tone indicators are employed.

“You develop these in-group communication styles. You know when you send someone a text message, you’ve texted them so many times that you can write ‘/s’ and they’ll get it,” Freedman said. “They won’t think you’ve made a typo or think ‘What is this?’”

The notation doesn’t draw away from your comment; it’s simply a clarifying addition to prevent unnecessary squabbles online. Whether you choose to use tone indicators in your online lingo or not, they are here to stay, so you may want to learn their meanings so you can keep up with the conversation.

We’ve dealt with a lifetime of miscommunication online in the last two years alone. It’s time that we be clear with the intent behind our posts to actively avoid preventable digital disputes. Can you imagine never going through the stilted exchange of clarifying that you were being sarcastic with your response again?

Is that not worth a few extra characters in your text? /rh