Imagine waking up in the morning and receiving the following message on your cell phone:
What a party! 🤩
You will almost certainly deduce that this was an extremely fun event. But what would happen if you consulted your phone and came across this one:
What a party! 👿
When we converse face-to-face with other people we convey both verbal (the message) and nonverbal information (intonation, body language, gestures and facial expressions). The latter plays an essential role in correctly deciphering the meaning of the message and the intention of the sender. Thus, in the second example, most of us will infer that the party was a fiasco.
The way we communicate underwent a major transformation at the beginning of this century. Our social interactions began to occur virtually through cell phones and social networks. This situation generated new forms of written communication with undeniable positive aspects, but with an obvious limitation: the absence of the non-verbal ingredient present in face-to-face communication.
To palliate this defect, emojis were devised. The Unicode Emoji v.15 standard system brings together more than 3,000 emojis representing faces, gestures, people, professions, animals, elements of nature, buildings, objects, activities, etc.
The best known emojis are those representing faces (🤓) and some other elements such as hearts (💕) and gestures (🤦♀️ or 👌). In turn, these are the emojis that are most commonly used as substitutes for non-verbal communication with the dual function of conveying the emotions of the sender and clarifying the content of the message.
Emojis and facial expressions.
Do face emojis work in the same way as emotional facial expressions in in-person communication? We know that facial expressions influence the observer in two ways: they allow us to infer what emotion the sender is experiencing and they trigger affective reactions in the receiver.
Thanks to several researches we know that the emotional intensity of messages such as “he is smart” or “he is stupid” increases when positive expressions are accompanied by a happy emoji (😊) and negative ones by a sad one (😔).
In addition, people experience greater emotional contagion (e.g., they feel more dejected when reading a sad text) when a written message is accompanied by an emoji congruent with the expressed emotion.
Finally, when we see emojis that express emotions our body reacts similarly to when we see real faces.
Is there consensus on how we interpret their meaning?
For emojis to be one of the main tools for expressing emotions there must be an agreement about their meaning among users. However, the level of consensus varies widely and some emojis are more ambiguous than others.
In the case of emotions, some emojis are unanimously related to a single emotion, such as 🙁 (sadness). On the contrary, emojis such as 😬 relate to fourteen different emotions.
The variation in the degree of consensus on the meaning of emojis may be due to the very complexity of the emotion expressed by the emoji (as is also the case with some facial expressions). Another possible cause is the degree of similarity between the emoji and the emotional expression of the represented face. In addition, individual and cultural differences among users should be considered.
A last aspect to take into account is that Unicode provides a code for each emoji, but not the graphic symbol. This has as a consequence that their appearance may vary from one platform to another, of which there are at least 46.
Thus, if the sender and the receiver use different devices, it is possible that the appearance of the emoji sent is different from the one received. It has been seen that the meaning of some emojis, such as 😍, is very consistent across platforms, while in other cases there are very marked discrepancies (for example, 🙌 is interpreted as celebration in some platforms and in others as prayer).
Beware of ambiguity
Emojis are used to communicate emotions and clarify the content of our messages. We use them mostly in instant messaging, with friends and people in our closest social circle, and in informal contexts. Sometimes, we use them simply for fun or to strengthen the relationship with our interlocutors. In short, emojis facilitate digital communication but, be careful, do not forget that our recipient will not always interpret them as we want 😬.
Pilar Ferré Romeu, Associate Professor of Basic Psychology. Department of Psychology. Rovira i Virgili University. Tarragona, Universitat Rovira i Virgili; José Antonio Hinojosa Poveda, Associate Professor of the Department of Experimental Psychology, Cognitive Processes and Speech Therapy, Universidad Complutense de Madrid; Juan Haro Rodríguez, Associate Professor of the Area of Basic Psychology. Department of Psychology. Tarragona, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, and Miguel Ángel Pérez-Sánchez, Profesor Titular del Dpto. de Psicología Básica y Metodología, Universidad de Murcia, Universidad de Murcia.
This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.
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