How do we know what our emojis *really* mean?

Have you ever experienced the sheer embarrassment of sending a text or WhatsApp only to discover the emoji you've added has been interpreted in entirely the wrong way?

It might comfort you to realise this is much more common than you think, as a new study at the university has revealed subtle nuances in how gender, age, and culture may influence how we interpret different emojis.

We caught up with Ruth Filik, Associate Professor at the University of Nottingham and co-author of the study, to decode the emoji enigma.

Big Question emojis web

Given the rapid increase in online communication through social media, emoji are something that most of us encounter every day – often with conversational partners from different cultures, and across different age groups and genders.

Emoji are an important substitute for non-verbal cues (such as facial expressions), which are absent in online written communication. Some of the most common additions to text messages are emoji representing facial emotional expressions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and disgust (the six ‘universal’ emotions).

We might assume that when we use emoji, particularly to convey a relatively basic emotion, that our intentions are clear to the receiver. However, given that there are individual differences in how ‘real’ facial emotions are perceived, it seems likely that there are also individual differences in the perception of emotions conveyed by emoji. Interestingly, to date, relatively little is known about individual differences in emoji interpretation.

Our survey said...

In our study we examined the influence of gender, age, and culture on emoji comprehension. Over 500 participants across the UK and China completed an emoji classification task in which they were presented with a series of emoji, each representing one of six facial emotional expressions, across four commonly used platforms.

Each of the six studied emojis was represented four times, using emojis from the Apple, Windows, Android, and WeChat platforms, all of which are slightly different from one another.

Their task was to choose from one of six labels (happy, sad, angry, surprised, fearful, disgusted) which emotion was represented by each emoji. Similar to findings with ‘real’ facial emotions, results showed that age, gender, and culture all had a significant impact on how emojis were classified by participants.

The study in four key points:

  • There are individual differences in how people interpret emojis which represent seemingly straightforward emotions.

  • Some of these differences are similar to those that have been observed in recognising ‘real’ facial emotions, suggesting that similar psychological processes may be involved.

  • Individual differences in emoji recognition are likely to be more complex and nuanced than with ‘real’ faces due to additional factors such as cultural trends coming into play.

  • When using emojis, bear in mind that the receiver might not share your interpretation, even if you think it is obvious – particularly if they are from a different culture or different generation.

The findings have important implications when considering emoji use, for example, conversations with partners from different cultures. Individual differences in emoji recognition are likely to be even more complex and nuanced than those observed with real faces, for instance, some cultures may use the ‘smile’ emoji to signify sarcasm, rather than happiness.

So the next time you send that message, take a quick pause and check your emoji before you hit send!

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