Hearts, thumbs up, and stomping flamenco dancers
Updated: May 10, 2022
Emojis are all around us from text messages to brand campaigns or even business emails. They are a form of communication that has become prevalent in online settings. Winking faces, grinning cats, purple hearts and clowns are only some examples of emojis used by billions of people around the world.
Unlike emoticons, which describe a group of keyboard characters (e.g. :) or :/ etc.), emojis are small images, symbols, or icons used in text fields in electronic communication. The first set of emojis was created by Shigetaka Kurita in the late 1990s. As for the term itself, "emoji" is a transliteration of the Japanese word 絵 (e=picture) and 文字 (moji = character).
While early forms of digital communication gave users the chance to exchange messages in a fast and direct way, social cues such as gestures, facial expressions, or intonation seemed to be completely absent in online settings. This gap was filled by emojis which soon started supplementing online text-based communication. As visual icons, they were a way to enrich text messages and convey users' feelings. In fact, a 2016 study has shown that looking at emojis lights up different regions of the brain and causes the same emotional response as in-person communication. According to Vyvyan Evans, the author of The Emoji Code, emojis are a great way to reproduce characteristics of real-life communication in the digital environment. Our desire to imitate real-life interactions is also obvious if one takes a look at writing trends such as capitalization and multiple exclamation points, which are used in online settings to express shouting (e.g. WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?) or excitement (e.g. I can’t wait!!!) respectively.
While many people use emojis to express themselves in a more efficient and precise way or just for fun, psychologists argue that there may also be a connection between personality traits and the use of emojis. Studies indicate that people who use more emojis tend to be more agreeable, receptive, and empathetic.
Psychologists have also detected patterns regarding the use of certain emojis: emojis like the "lightning bolt" and the "rocket" align with doing well in a fast-paced environment, while "praise hands," "thumbs-up," "100%," "checkmarks," and "clapping hands" can reflect one’s appreciation for their own and others' hard work and accomplishments.
What about cultural differences?
A smile means the same no matter what language users speak. However, cultural differences may impact the use of emojis among users as presented in the 2015 Emoji Report. For example, the praying-hands emoji originates from Japan, where it was used as a sign to say please or thank you. However, the same emoji usually has religious connotations when used in Western countries. The Canadian maple leaf is another example as, in the US, it is used as a stand-in for marijuana.
Culture seems to affect emoji preferences as well. For example, French speakers use four times as many heart emojis as other languages, while Arabic speakers use four times the average rate of flowers and plants emojis. Russian speakers use three times the average rate of romantic emojis, whereas Americans lead the use of random emojis with skulls, birthday cakes, fires, and food being among the most popular ones.
Could emojis turn into an independent language?
Αccording to Jurga Žilinskienė, CEO of Today Translations, emojis are the world’s fastest-growing language. But can emojis be a language? John McWhorter is a linguist and argues that people cannot communicate purely through emojis as valuable context related to the subject, the events, or the time in question is missing. At the same time, Neil Cohn, a post-doctoral research fellow and linguist specializing in visual communication, mentions that emojis need grammar as a key component in order to constitute a new language.
With new emojis being created and released in the latest versions of iOS and the 😂 (face with tears of joy emoji) being named the Oxford Dictionary Word of the Year in 2015, one is clear: emojis are here to stay. Whether they will become an independent language or not is yet to be seen. For now, they’ll keep helping us connect with others and express our feelings and thoughts. As the years of the pandemic have shown us, digital communication is vital not only in the business world but also in our personal lives as it keeps us all close at least virtually.
Evans, V. (2017), The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats.
Amit, E et al. (2022) Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
Wall, H et al. (2022) An exploration of psychological factors on emoticon usage and implications for judgment accuracy.