Emoji Psychology: Decoding Digital Emotions
Awareness Education

Emoji Psychology: Decoding Digital Emotions


The Universality of Emojis Across Cultures

The world has over seven thousand languages. Communication without a common language is impossible. Yet, the internet is a united place where anyone from any corner of the world can communicate with others. A major contributor to this ease of communication is emoji. They transcend all language barriers to facilitate the conveying of emotions between people. A possible explanation of why emojis work so well can be found in psychology. The number of emotions that humans can feel.

During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman identified seven basic emotions: happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise, contempt and anger. He also described that these emotions are universally experienced in all human cultures, and their corresponding facial expressions are also universal. Since emojis are mainly the virtual representation of human facial expressions of emotions, they are universally understood. This is not to say that there aren’t different interpretations of both facial expressions and emojis, something we’ll come to later!

Read More: Do you hide your Sadness with Smiley Emoji?

The Psychology Behind Emoji Choices

Display Rules

Have you ever found yourself smiling and saying thank you after receiving a present you do not like at all? Or laughing at your seniors’ joke even though you don’t find it funny? These are both examples of display rules. Paul Eckman also introduced the concept of display rules, which refer to a particular culture or society’s informal rules and norms about how people should express themselves in different situations and contexts. Although such rules can promote interpersonal harmony, they can also be used by people to mask their true feelings and hide their real emotions behind superficial expressions, reducing the authenticity of human connection. Let’s look at some of how emojis are used by people in different contexts.

1. Concealing Negative Emotions

As more and more communication goes online, these display rules are also applied to emojis. The internet is a culture on its own and has its norms of emoji use. Of course, people use emojis such as the celebrating face, the happy face, the dancing emoji, the star eyes emoji and more to convey when they are happy and feeling positive emotions. But, more common is the use of emojis to conceal negative emotions, which are considered less appropriate to express. There are even memes that talk about how people like to sprinkle a few emojis in their text messages to others while having a serious conversation with them, to relieve some of the tension and awkwardness between them. However, this may undermine the proper seriousness and gravity of the situation.

Read More: Workplace Emotions and The Ways to Deal with Negative Ones

2. Adding Emotional Context And Removing Ambiguity

Psychologists have also suggested that about 55% of human communication is through body language—gestures, posture, facial expression—and 38% is conveyed by a speaker’s tone and inflexion. All these features and cues of spoken and visual language disappear in conversations over text messages. That is where emojis come to our rescue. They encode information about our intention in places where only text can be ambiguous. The addition of emojis can confirm the emotion you are trying to convey. For example, adding a winking emoji to your text can make sure that the other person realises you are making a joke/using sarcasm.

3. Relationship Maintaining tools

At times, people use emojis with exaggerated features to convey emotions, such as the ‘laughing emoji with tears’. It is obvious that most people do not break down into tears upon looking at a joke someone sent or a funny meme, however, the emoji can act as a tool of affirmation for the sender and as a token of appreciation for their messages. For example, a daughter says that the laughing emoji is her default reaction to the memes and funny videos her dad sends her which acknowledges the thought behind it.

Read More: The Power of Affirmations

4. Emojis as Representation of Beliefs, Opinions, and Identities

Emojis are also powerful tools that can make known your identity, political beliefs and opinions on some matters, and can act as a tool of solidarity. The use of emojis in people’s bios or descriptions on social media serves this purpose. For example, a rainbow emoji or a rainbow flag emoji can indicate the LGBTQIA+ allyship or even the sexuality of a person, and convey to other people that their account is a safe space for them. Similarly, a closed fist has been used to indicate support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Flag emojis are also used to convey information about national or ethnic identities.

Miscommunication because of Emojis

We have seen how emojis can be utilised by people in several ways and can make conversations over text more convenient. However, there is also a drawback of conversations in the emoji era. Emojis can themselves be highly ambiguous and may be interpreted very differently by different groups of people. Differences in emoji interpretation are usually along the lines of a generational divide, wherein older people are usually not caught up on the changing emoji use trends and may interpret them literally, causing errors in communication with younger generations.

Emojis may also attain very specific meanings in certain sub-cultures of the internet and may be confusing for an outsider to understand. Lastly, emojis also differ greatly across different platforms and phone companies. An emoji may look completely different on Apple iOS than it looks like on Android. The most commonly misunderstood emojis include the folding hands emoji. Whereas to some people, it appears to be praying hands or as a gesture of request or saying thank you, to others it is a high five. A very recent example of how emojis change meanings is the use of skull emojis.

In internet culture, youngsters use it to mean that they found something extremely funny – that they are dying from laughter. On the other hand, older generations use it to convey actual death. Thus, your father may text you “Your Aunt passed away this morning (‘Skull emoji’)”, and to you it may seem like he finds that funny, leading to hilarious miscommunication.

Emoji Trends: What’s Hot?

Emojis also go through various trends of usage, reflecting how people are influenced by social media. The latest trend is the use of the bow emoji, keeping up with the “coquette girl” trend. Since emojis are such a large part of communication in today’s world, changing meanings of emojis signify the evolution of internet language. They have significant psychological implications, impacting how we see the world and talk to others. Emoji trends help people participate in the shared creation of culture. Thus, it can be seen that emojis are not merely fun social media elements, but important tools of language with profound consequences on human communication.

Read More Articles from Psychologs

References +
  • https://www.paulekman.com/blog/facial-expressions-universal-culturally-specific/
  • https://neurosciencenews.com/psychology-emoji-emotions-22706/
  • https://qz.com/1726756/the-psychology-behind-the-most-popular-emoji
  • https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Common-examples-of-emoji-using-ambiguity_tbl4_336561000

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