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In chat environments, and to some degree also on forums / e-mail, I use three different 'smiling' emoticons:

:) or :-) (depending on which looks better on the font in question)

I seem to be somewhat unusual in this, in that a lot of people seem to pick one of those three and use it exclusively. For me, however, each of them has a slightly different meaning, though I have difficulty articulating the exact differences.

=) is the sort of semi-amused, "rrrrrriiiiiiiiight" kind of smiley.

Both :) and ^^ are genuine, happy smileys, but I think their usage varies in that :) is more active while ^^ is more passive. :) is a smile that's directed at someone, while ^^ is more like an expression of me being privately happy about something.

When a sentence ends with a question mark, there's one more option that I can use. Although sentence? =), sentence? :) and sentence? ^^ are all fine, using sentence?-) is also an alternative. I think that the difference here is that adding =), :) or ^^ denotes a smile that comes after the sentence, while ?-) while indicates that you are smiling as you say it, and that the question is not necessarily completely serious in tone. It's a bit like ;), but more subtle. While ;) implies that the whole sentence is a joke, ?-) can be used to e.g. express amusement at some funny implication of what somebody else said (but didn't necessarily think the whole way through).

"So you just generically want to run for Parliament, no matter for which party?-)"

Also when using heart emoticons, I find that there's a clear difference between :3 and <3, which I think is again an active/passive -distinction. <3 is the more active one, while :3 is more passive.

"I love you! <3"
"Okay, we'll see on Friday, then. :3"

I wonder how common these interpretations are, and whether "digital natives" really are natives in the sense that they're picking up subtle nuances in emoticon usage that go completely unnoticed by others. Or, since most people seem to just stick with one standard emoticon, maybe this is all just in my head.

What are your thoughts? :)

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