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Do Some Emojis Reach Only Women?

Why women might perceive emojis differently.

Key points

  • Men tend to use smartphones primarily for informational purposes, while more women use them for social goals.
  • Women are generally better able to detect emotional facial expressions than men.
  • Women use emojis more than men in text messages and on social media.
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Girl looking at emojis
Source: Georgejmclittle/Shutterstock

Social media posts and text-based messages are often adorned with emojis which serve to enhance meaning and convey an element of emotion in the message or post. In addition, recipients of messages and readers of posts which include emojis tend to perceive these as more emotionally charged compared to messages with no emojis attached.

Furthermore, previous research has identified gender differences, with women tending to use emojis more than men. One study which examined emoji use across 10 different countries revealed that the rate of emoji use for women was 53% compared to 47% for men (Chen et al, 2017). This gender difference was even bigger in the U.S., where women used emojis twice as often as men. Women also used emojis more in text messages and Twitter posts compared to men. This gender difference might partially explain why women judge the meaning conveyed by emojis differently from men.

Two aims of a study by Lara Jones and colleagues from Wayne State University, Detroit, were to examine gender differences in emoji familiarity and emoji use across different contexts; and to look at gender differences in the perceived emotional quality conveyed by emojis (Jones, Wurm, Norville, & Mullins, 2020).

Participants in their study were 299 undergraduate students, 163 women and 136 men, who completed questions regarding the contexts in which they sent or received emojis:

  • Text messaging
  • Facebook posts and comments
  • Other social media
  • Emails

They were also asked about the people with whom they used emojis:

  • Family
  • Co-worker
  • Teacher
  • Intimate friend
  • Boss

Participants were also presented with emojis in a random order for 2 seconds each and asked:"

  • "How positive or negative do you find the emoji?"
  • "How familiar do you find the emoji?"

Emoji use

When assessing use across different contexts, the researchers found that emojis were used most in text messaging, followed by social media posts on platforms such as Snapchat or Instagram. However, emojis use was far less prevalent on Facebook and in emails. Some 51% of participants in the study reported using emojis ‘occasionally’ or ‘sometimes’ in text messages, with 46% reporting using emojis in text messages ‘every time.' However, 95% of respondents said they never used emojis in emails, which might be explained by the fact that emails are generally used for work-based communication, where relationships are likely to be professional as opposed to personal.

Overall, emojis were employed most often when messaging friends, followed by messaging with intimate partners, family, and co-workers. However, emojis were hardly ever used when communicating in a more professional capacity such as with a boss or a teacher.

Gender differences

Overall, higher familiarity ratings were given for positive compared to negative emojis, and emoji familiarity ratings were higher for women than for men, as has been found in previous research. Women used emojis more frequently than men, which might be explained by women sending more messages than men. More specifically, women used emojis more than men in text messages and on social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter, with no gender differences in emoji use found in emails or Facebook posts. When communicating with an intimate partner, both genders reported that they used emojis either usually or frequently about 70-90% of the time. However, when messaging family and friends, women used emojis more than men, although men employed emojis more than women when messaging co-workers.

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Men and women looking at emojis
Source: Vectorfusionart/Shutterstock

These gender differences are perhaps explained by considering the different reasons for which men and women might use smartphones. For example, men report using smartphones more for informational purposes such as work-related questions for co-workers, while women report using smartphones more for social reasons.

Emotional quality

When participants were presented with only clearly positive and clearly negative emojis, the researchers found that the positive emojis evoked more emotion than the negative ones. Furthermore, men gave more positive ratings to all emojis overall compared to women. This is because negative emojis were rated more negatively by women than by men, while there was no gender difference in the ratings for positive emojis.

This gender difference in rating negative emojis might be explained by the fact that women are generally better able to detect emotional facial expressions compared to men. More specifically, women possess an emotional negativity bias which has previously been found in facial emotion processing research. This means that women are more sensitive to negative facial emotions compared to men, even though men and women take about the same time to process human facial expressions. This is why negative emojis representing anger, fear, worry, or sadness are likely to be perceived by women with more intensity, and more negatively, compared to men.

The now-ubiquitous use of emojis in online communication means that it is important for us to understand and acknowledge gender differences in how they may be received. The main finding from this study was that there was no gender difference in perceived quality ratings for positive emojis, although negative emojis were rated as more negative by women than men. This finding has important implications for understating emoji use across a variety of contexts and the impressions which might be created by using negative emojis, which we may initially perhaps use more sparingly.

References

Jones, L. L., Wurm, L. H., Norville, G. A., & Mullins, K. L. (2020) ‘Sex differences in emoji use, familiarity, and valence’, Computers in Human Behaviour, 108.

Chen, Z., Xuan, L., Shen, S., Ai, W., Liu, X., & Mei, Q. (2017). Through a Gender Lens: An Empirical Study of Emoji Usage over Large-Scale Android Users. ArXiv. https://doi. org/10.1145/3178876.3186157.

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