Emojis: why we love them so much and what they mean

Those colorful symbols appear everywhere – even as decoration in high-fashion collections and, very soon, in movies. Yes, emojis have left the digital realm and firmly entrench themselves in today’s popular culture. They have also changed the ways we communicate.

A new language

The world can sigh with relief: a set of 72 new emojis is coming to our devices, amongst which are the (much needed) avocado, selfie and facepalm. New additions to the Unicode Standard, the character coding system that supports emoji rendering on different platforms, always create a surge of joy on social media. It seems that we can never get enough of these funny icons!

Surveys show that emojis appeal not only to teenage demographics. In fact, 80% of UK’s adults use them in text messages, and a whopping 40% admit to have once created a message composed entirely of emojis. So, are we talking about a new language form?

Some argue so. Language comes in many forms, and one of these can be the use of visual symbols. Indeed, today’s writing systems evolved from early symbol languages, which resemble emojis. It is no accident that their homeland is Japan, a country with complex writing script and a “very visual” culture, as sociologist John Clammer puts it.

But will emojis take us back to the preliterate times of cave drawings? It’s true that they convey meaning on their own. After all, the 2015 Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is not a word, but a pictograph, right? According to Professor of Linguistics Viv Evans the face with tears of joy”  emoji is a visual gestalt – in one symbol, it communicates complex emotion, which can be described with several words.

Emojis can indeed substitute words and even whole phrases. In 2015, Emogi Research team found that online communication has become shorter due to their increased use. The Internet slang is also changing – common abbreviations such as LOL are no longer used as often as before, because emojis have taken their place. Similar results come from the University of Valencia: a study analyzed the use of the thump-up emoji on Whatsapp and found that, when used alone, it serves many conversational purposes: it can signify acceptance or liking, show informality, close the discussion, etc.

And if you think that the 1282 currently available Unicode characters don’t suffice to express the depths of the human psyche, ask the translators of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Moby Dicksorry, Emoji Dick, two novels written entirely in emojis.

However, it’s unlikely that we’ll lose our written language to symbols anytime soon. The use of emojis is seen more as a highly creative form of language. When present in textual messages, these symbols help us express ourselves better and imaginatively. Besides, they serve a far more important role than to simply replace words.

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Getting emoji-onal

Originally, emojis were created as symbolic representation of emotions. Similarly to punctuation, they are used to express emotion, irony or humor, and to substitute body language and tone of voice in text-based communication. The latter is crucial: according to psychologist Albert Mehrabian’s 7%-38%-55% rule, only 7% of the information we receive when talking to someone reflects what they actually say. The rest comes from how they say it – their gestures, intonation, accent, speech rhythm…

Emojis (and their typographical siblings emoticons) can also trigger emotional responses in people, and can even induce empathy (Prof. Viv Evans). Several studies have shown that negative emojis or emoticons in messages create negative feelings in the reader, and vice versa. In business communication, emojis can soften negative messages, such as rejections, requests, or complaints.

Take a look at the good old smiley for example. Researchers analyzed readers’ reactions on receiving a short business email with or without a smiling emoticon at the end. The messages were:

I can’t make the meeting because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed.

vs.

I can’t make the meeting because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed. : -)

The participants perceived the second message as less negative. It was also rated as less “professional”, but the author was seen as friendlier that the author of the first email.

Isn’t it weird how three punctuation marks : – ) can make us appear friendly? In fact, we have been culturally conditioned to interpret emoticons as human faces. Neuroscientist Owen Churches from the University of Adelaide discovered that the same region in the brain is activated when seeing an emoji or an emoticon as when seeing an actual face.

Do you feel 😯 or 😡 or 😕 ? Psychologists also say that the tiny symbols help us deepen our emotional self-awareness, and make us more conscious of our own feelings. When we become better in identifying and labeling our emotions, we also become more sensible to the emotions of others.

Last but not least: research has proven that emojis make us enjoy communicating more. Readers also perceive the message as “richer” when it is sprinkled with aesthetically pleasant pictographs.

Say it with a 🙂  

It seems that we communicate more positive than negative emotions with emojis. The 2015 SwiftKey report on emoji use across the globe showed that happy faces – including winks, kisses, smiles, grins (44.8%) win over sad faces and angry faces (14.33%). The third more frequently used emoji category, hearts (12.5%), as well as the two most frequently used hand gestures (the thump-up and victory emojis), also carry positive meaning.

The SwiftKey data also shows that users prefer anthropomorphic symbols. Faces account to over 60% of all emojis shared. Data from Twitter on the most tweeted emojis confirms the tendency towards faces. The top three emoji categories on Twitter from mid-2015 to mid-2016 are faces, hands, and hearts.

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That doesn’t mean that we are all happy or in love. The fact that people tend to post more positive information about themselves on social media (it’s called impression management) may explain the hordes of smileys. Another reason is that we have more difficulty expressing other emotions with symbols. For example, Emogi Research team found that in 20% of the cases people can’t choose which emoji would depict “surprise”.

Don’t let me be misunderstood

Which brings us to the most interesting part: we interpret emojis differently. Researchers from the University of Minnesota found that in 25% of the cases people were not sure if an emoji displayed positive, negative or neutral sentiment. There were also huge discrepancies in participants’ opinions on what certain emojis actually mean.

And if we mention the intercultural differences in emoji use, things get really messed up. To illustrate, one study found that Japanese bloggers tend to use more emojis than their American counterparts. Americans are also more “direct” when choosing emojis, while Japanese use the symbols mainly with decorative purposes.

Asian people generally like emojis more. Researchers from the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia analyzed a dataset of 17m geo-encoded tweets from around the globe and found that the highest number of tweets containing emojis (26.3%) came from Asia. The results also showed that tweets from “first-world” countries (North America, Western Europe, Australia) contained more emojis depicting objects and symbols, while all the other countries used more emojis related to emotions.

There are cultural variations in emoji use in Europe, too. Another Jožef Stefan Institute study revealed that Spanish users tweet with more emojis than other Europeans. The team analyzed a sample of 1.6m tweets in 13 European languages to detect 751 emojis. The results show that the English and Spanish tweets contained the largest variety of emojis, while the Portuguese, Bulgarian and Albanian tweets had the lowest number of different emojis.

The SwiftKey Emoji Report from 2015 showed that there are country-specific preferences for certain symbols. French users, for instance, insert 4 times more heart emojis than the average, Americans use more LGBT emojis, Spanish prefer the “party time” emoji, Brazilians insert music symbols, and Arabic people post icons related to hot weather 25% more than average. Talk about reducing stereotypes…

Know thy smiley

Emojis can reveal a lot about our personality as well.

A recent study found that people who are more agreeable are more likely to use emojis on social media platforms. Agreeableness is a personality trait that correlates with better communication in real-world, too – agreeable people smile more and use more encouraging words when talking with others.

There is also a strong link between social power and emojis. Influential social media users put more emojis (and more positive ones in particular) in their posts than low status users. They are also more conservative in their emoji use, with J being the most common symbol they use.

Gender influences how we use emojis as well. Many studies have shown that women use emoticons more often than men. According to Emogi research team, female users see graphic symbols as more enriching for the communication.  An interesting study also suggests that women use emoticons in more varied contexts and mainly to express humor, while males mostly use them for sarcasm and teasing.

Shockingly, we can also guess a person’s occupation based on what emojis they choose. Researchers from the University of Rochester discovered that office clerks tend to use more emojis and emoticons, and show more negative emotions than people with other jobs such as IT specialists, marketers or start-up people. Designers and PR professionals also use emojis more regularly than other professionals.

Emojis can disclose your political affiliation, too. A content analysis by monitoring company Linkfluence showed that the French flag emoji is mainly used in tweets about centre-right politicians.

Even a tiny detail such as the presence of a nose on a smiley can tell something about the person who posted it. Researchers from Stanford University analyzed stylistic variations in emoticons in 38m tweets and learnt that “:)” and “:-)” don’t mean the same thing. People who include noses in their tweets generally tend to write more, use fewer abbreviations, and make less typos. Noseless emoticons indicate a tendency to shorten other words, too. Also, users who omit noses were found to be younger, or to have “younger” interests than the other group.

How about that! It looks like we expose more than we want with these innocent graphics. Can you relate to some of the findings? Share your opinion (extra points, if you do it in emojis)!

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3 thoughts on “Emojis: why we love them so much and what they mean

    1. Aleksandra

      Very happy you found it useful!

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