Take a moment to open up your messaging app. Which emojis fill the spots in your frequently used? What does your favorite emoji say about you? Currently, these emoticons have been communicating for me: , representing my affinity for pizza and the buckets of tears I cry while watching This Is Us.
I’d be surprised if any two persons had an identical combination of frequently used emojis, though there’s sure to be some standard overlap. They’re a snapshot of our unique communication patterns: customized dictionary meets emotion log.
What are we saying with these little pictures that seamlessly weaved their way into our everyday communication? What do they say about us? And is there more to them than meets the googly-eye?
Technology is continuously and irreversibly changing the way we communicate with others. We know technology is changing our brains, too, and emojis are likely part of these changes. These seemingly trivial icons we add to our messages deserve a closer look.
Room for Interpretation
When I finally convinced my husband to yield to the world of smartphones, he became an extremely prayerful and thankful person to the people he communicated with through text. The folded hands emoji was in heavy rotation in his messages. Rather than offering petition or gratitude, he thought he was giving high fives in response to good news.
A debate ensued. I insisted that the folded hands were an expression of prayer or giving thanks, and showed him what I thought to be the appropriate high five emoji—until one day a friend said she used the “folded hands emoji” for high fives, too. According to this emoji dictionary, it can be used for both. Though there is another emoji signifying a raised hand or high five, I admit defeat. And rightfully so…
Research suggests that while there is unity in the way people use certain emojis to communicate specific emotions, we often assign our own meanings to the emojis we use, reflecting our unique experiences and relationships. Interpretation of emojis can be further muddled when exchanged between different platforms such as Apple and Google. There’s caution in taking an emoji at face value.
“The range of emotions represented (through emojis) is wider than most of the words in our everyday emotional vocabulary.”
These individual differences in emoji choice are similar to the distinctive nuances in our verbal and nonverbal communications.
For instance, I use the Monkey, “see no evil,” emoji as an expression of “oops” and “embarrassment” rather than its official meaning of “I didn’t want to see that.” Sometimes created meaning is an individual choice or serves the function of an inside joke in the context of a relationship.
For my husband and me, the puppy emoji is the ultimate expression of compassion and comfort on a hard day, because have you seen a golden retriever puppy?
Emojis Are Enhancing Communication
With an estimated 80% of phone users sending emojis back and forth, some have feared emojis, and technology use, in general, will impair our ability to communicate through written and spoken language. After all, the 2015 Oxford of Dictionary word of the year was not a word, but an emoji. Are we losing fragments of communication to an increase in emoticon use?
Psychologists and neuroscientists propose the contrary: emojis can enhance device-driven human interactions. The individual differences noted above bring some nuance back to texts, social media posts, and personal emails. Instead of wondering what that period or exclamation mark actually means, we can enlist emojis to help convey tone and mood that is lost in text.
Where an exclamation point can represent a wide range of emotional states such as excitement, anger, joy, urgency, or surprise, an emoji provides a more specific clue to the emotion behind the words. The key here: emojis can do this when complimenting text, not replacing it. The presence of both are important to clarify the meaning of text and the intention behind an emoji choice.
Make Technology Work for You: Emoji Edition
While there is an opportunity for misinterpretation of and variance in the meaning assigned to emojis, it seems that emoticon use generally lifts our communications. The presence of an emoji can help our messages read more positively, even when the content is not inherently positive, like canceling plans. One study even found a positive correlation between emoji use and agreeable personality traits.
Emojis aren’t going to soften all texts (i.e. a “we need to talk” text) but they could help improve how people feel about our texts when used tactfully. We have less control over how people interpret our words when they cannot physically read our body language, but it’s possible that our brains read emojis in a similar fashion to human faces.
If your texts typically read cold, which can lead to missed connections and disagreements, consider adding some warmth here and there to convey to recipients that you won’t be in a salty mood when you see them in person.
Additionally, emojis lead to creative exchanges between partners, family members, and friends. Try to have an accurate conversation solely through emotions—it’s an entertaining challenge. For a while, a friend and I played emoji charades: creating combinations of emojis to represent a song for each other to guess. The game added some playfulness back into our friendship when we couldn’t see each other on a frequent basis.
Emojis and Your Emotions
As a mental health clinician, I am all for improving communication, especially the communication of emotions. Only a portion of emojis are mood and emotion-based, but some of the most frequently used.
The range of emotions represented is wider than most of the words in our everyday emotional vocabulary. Emojis offer a gradation of feelings; we have more than happy, mad and sad at our fingertips. We can send a face expressing a mix of sadness and helplessness to show the degree of our distress rather than a simple; 🙁 .
Perhaps instead of limiting our vocabulary, emojis provide an opportunity to get more specific about our emotions—a concept known as emotional granularity.
“Technology is continuously and irreversibly changing the way we communicate with others.”
It matters to our well-being because our ability to accurately identify our emotional states as distinct from one another plays a role in our ability to respond to our emotions effectively. We cannot ask for help or explain to our partner why we are upset if we remain in a vague state of sadness. If we can identify a feeling more precise than a basic emotion, we have more information and motivation available for problem-solving.
In practice, I’ve used emojis working with younger populations who are facing and identifying complex emotions for the first time. Younger teens may come to a session and have difficulty describing their emotional experiences, but they are more than familiar with their emoji keyboards. It’s a great place to start conversations and reflect on our emotional states, for young people and adults.
Next time you use an emoji, think about which emotion it’s representing and if it accurately reflects your experience. Could it be an exercise in emotional intelligence and mindfulness? Maybe these characters aren’t just for fun after all.
Technology presents both traps and triumphs in connecting people. Compared to some technological phenomena, the risk in using emojis in personal communication is low. Emojis can be used in a playful and creative way, reflecting our moods, expressions, humor, and even personality. Holding awareness of the individual differences in interpretation that exist, while using emojis to our benefit, can add rather than subtract meaning to our messages.