Why do Russians use parentheses instead of smileys?

Smileys are mostly replaced by parentheses in Russia's web communication culture

Smileys are mostly replaced by parentheses in Russia's web communication culture

Natalya Nosova
It’s a unique and trendy thing in the Russian-speaking segment of the web – to put a round bracket at the end of a sentence to express friendliness without acting too emotional. However, it often confuses foreigners.

Russia is a mysterious country full of people with strange habits, even down to the little things. A Croatian Twitter user denis asked a pointed question about Russian behavior: “Why do Russians put a parenthesis at the end of whatever they write, like this)”

“Whatever” is a bit too much; you’re unlikely to find a closing parenthesis in a scientific report or an official document. But in informal texting, or on the internet – yes, we do love brackets. And here’s why.

History

Closing brackets are the origin of the smiley. One of the greatest Russian writers Vladimir Nabokov was among the first to conclude that people need smileys. When he was asked in 1969 where he would put himself among most prominent authors in history, Nabokov answered humbly and with great wit.

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile; some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.” Sounds familiar? Yes, it’s the good old smiley!

Nabokov, however, didn’t popularize them – the simple signs for a good mood took off in the 1970s, and in 1982 computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed to use them in text, writing like this: :-)

Then it turned to :) But Russians took it to a whole new level, losing the colon and just adding a round bracket to a previous word.

'A polite dot'

Every Russian has a different way to explain why they prefer round brackets. Some just say, “it’s shorter.” But it’s not all about brevity or laziness. Brackets have another meaning – using them Russians show they are friendly, polite and feel good about the conversation. It doesn’t necessarily mean something’s funny.

As Anastasia Vozhakova, one of the users of TheQuestion.com (Russian version of Quora), put it while answering a question about parentheses, “it’s almost a polite dot.” She meant that Russians are so used to round brackets that now someone neglecting them in informal texting may even look angry or impolite. Emojis, according to her, are too emotional.

Misunderstanding

This bracket thing is so common in Russia that we use it almost unconsciously, having no idea foreigners don’t have the habit and when confronted think “What the hell is that?” Some people get confused with Russians’ manner of communicating.

For instance, the BBC’s Edmund Harris wrote in 2010: “My old buddy used to text me while I was on my way to his place something like “Buy me a pack of Marlboro and beer ) (his smileys always have no eyes or nose for some reason). How should I interpret that?”

Seven years later maybe a bit late, but we can answer him now. You shouldn’t interpret that at all, Edmund! Just buy the guy his darn beer and cigarettes! Round brackets mean actually nothing; it’s just a way to look communicable.

Bracket etiquette

At the same time, there are some nuances. The number of parentheses matters: if it’s “)” it’s politeness only. If it’s “))” that’s the sign the person you text with really finds something funny. If it’s “)))” he or she is laughing out loud. And if it’s something like “))))))))))))”, he or she is really overusing it. Normally, people familiar with internet culture don’t do that.

Be careful with round brackets, smileys, and emojis – overusing any of them can look unpleasant. Another Russian author (unlike Nabokov, contemporary) Viktor Pelevin called smileys “visual deodorant.” He wrote with irony: “Usually people put smileys when they think they “smell bad.” And they want to guarantee the good smell”. A good comparison, isn’t it?)

This article is part of the Why Russia series, in which Russia Beyond answers the most popular questions about Russia

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