Psychology Today Editorial Staff

Brainstorm

Will Emojis Ever Mean the Same Thing to Everyone?

Apple introduced new emojis, but we barely agree about the old ones.

Posted Jul 18, 2017

By Ellen Airhart

In Ancient Egypt, a hieroglyph could represent the English equivalent of a letter (“Z”), a syllable (“tion”), or a word (“butterfly”). But everyone agreed upon the meaning of each symbol. Emojis are not like that.

New emoji courtesy of Apple, Inc.
Source: New emoji courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Yesterday, Apple announced that they are introducing a new set of emojis in honor of World Emoji Day. These emojis will soon work their way into our shared cultural symbology—but probably not in a way we can all agree on. We all have different opinions on the mood or words associated with each emoji, as researchers at the University of Minnesota showed in a study they presented at the 2016 International Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence Conference on Web and Social Media. In this study, the researchers sent 15 randomly selected emojis to 334 participants in the U.S. They looked at facial emojis from Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and LG.

Hannah Miller, co-author of the paper and graduate student at the University of Minnesota, says she notices the differences in her personal experiences, as well as her research. “I might add a smiley face to end the conversation on a good note,” she said. “You might throw it in because you’re being sarcastic.”

And the smiley face is far from the most confusing emoji. The most divisive was Microsoft’s version of the “smiling face with open mouth and tightly closed eyes”—almost half of participants (44 percent) said it was negative and the other half (54 percent) said it was positive. But nearly everyone (79 percent) seemed to understand that Apple’s “sleeping face” was neutral. When participants had to describe the emojis with words, the “unamused face” stirred up the most disagreement. Most participants concurred that the “smiling face with heart-shaped eyes” meant something like, as one person described it, “a cool kind of love... for when I was feeling loving but also a little chill.” (This is a real response.)

Though emoji is clearly not becoming a universal language, the Unicode Consortium has been slowly but surely adding them to the Unicode standard for indexing characters since 2010. Unicode usually keeps track of characters from various writing systems so that computers can use them properly. (You can submit a request for a new emoji in the Unicode indexing system here.)

For emojis, Unicode provides the descriptions I have been using in this blog post. Each technology platform—Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, and LG—can interpret these phrases in a different way. For example, I usually use Apple’s “grinning face with smiling eyes” to describe tense situations, because the face looks like it is clenching its teeth. And this is standard: Most people said that emoji means “ready to fight.” The Google version, though, bears a less ambiguous grin, and most people thought it meant “blissfully happy,” according to the University of Minnesota study.

When I explained the principles of this post to my mother, she said that she and my brother had been arguing about emoji meaning for a few days. He has a Samsung, she has an iPhone. She thought the “kissing face with closed eyes” meant embarrassed, but he thought it meant bashful. She thought the “smirking face” meant “like, really?”—as in, my brother is disagreeing about a point that my mom thinks is definitely true. He thought the same face was disgusted, a disconnect that has the potential for catastrophic miscommunication.

While there is still confusion around the meaning of emojis, the intent of emoticons is well understood. The Japanese invented emojis in the late 1990s, but we have been using :) and :( since the early 1980s, and we all tend to agree that the happy face is positive and the frowny face is negative, according to a 2001 study.  

So when future archaeologists dig our iPhones out of the sand, they probably won’t think about emojis the way we think about hieroglyphics. Miller says she doesn’t believe that emojis will someday gain a universal meaning: “The more visual, more graphic nature of the emoji might make it more difficult for meanings to emerge.”

Ellen Airhart is an editorial intern at Psychology Today.