A recent study used the hypothesis that facial cues in different parts of the face are interpreted differently based on an individual’s cultural background. The researchers confirmed this, with a study that found emoticons — as in the text-turned funny faces used in text messages, e-mail and instant messenger to replicate emotions and attitudes — are in fact interpreted differently depending on cultural factors.
Arstechnica notes the study found a culture's interpretation of facial expressions is dependent upon a combination of the culture's emotional openness and the challenge of controlling certain facial muscles. Here's more:
Given that the eyes are more difficult to control than the mouth when people express emotions, we predicted that individuals in cultures where emotional subduction is the norm (such as Japan) would focus more strongly on the eyes than the mouth when interpreting others’ emotions. By contrast, we predicted that people in cultures where overt emotional expression is the norm (such as the US) would tend to interpret emotions based on the position of the mouth, because it is the most expressive part of the face.
I have never been a huge fan of emoticons, mostly because I think our texting etiquette and habits are in fact lessening our writing abilities. I do, however, agree that emoticons are less universal than we might have thought, and that what looks like "money mouth" or "frown" to me might look like something else entirely to someone down the street or across the globe.