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Should Men Use Affectionate Emojis?

New research examines gender differences in the interpretation of emojis.

Men, you may want to think twice the next time you send a kissing face or heart-eyes emoji in a text message. According to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology, the interpretation of emojis can vary drastically depending on the gender of the sender.

To examine gender differences in emoji interpretation, psychologists at Southwestern University recruited 80 undergraduate students to take part in a short experiment. In this study, participants were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. They were asked to read and evaluate the contents of a text message. The text message, ostensibly sent from one co-worker to another, read: "Hey Katie, I'm sorry I couldn't come in yesterday. I'm feeling a lot better today though. Thanks for covering my shift."

While the words in the text message did not differ between groups, the researchers systematically varied the perceived gender of the text message sender (Rebecca versus Steven) as well as the emojis displayed at the end of the message (smiling face versus kissing face and heart emoji). In other words, participants either read the text message sent from Rebecca and ending in a smiling face, sent from Steven and ending in a smiling face, sent from Rebecca and ending in a kissing face and heart emoji, or sent from Steven and ending in a kissing face and heart emoji.

Then, researchers asked participants to evaluate the appropriateness of the text message by indicating their level of agreement with the following statements:

  • “I would send a message like this to a co-worker.”
  • “I find this text message acceptable.”
  • “[Rebecca/Steven] acted professionally in this case.”
  • “The text shows a proper tone between employees.”
  • “This message seems inappropriate.”

Researchers also assessed the likability of the sender by asking participants to indicate agreement with the following four statements: "'I would like to work with someone like [Rebecca/Steven],' 'I feel as though I would get along well with [Rebecca/Steven],' '[Rebecca/Steven] seems like the kind of person who gets along well with others,' and '[Rebecca/Steven] is probably a likable person.'”

What did they find? Interestingly, there was a stark gender difference in the way the text messages were perceived. Consistent with gender stereotypes, texts with affectionate emojis were judged as more likable and appropriate when they were believed to have come from a woman. Furthermore, text messages with friendly emojis (i.e., smiling faces) were judged as equally appropriate, but more likable, when they were believed to be sent by a man.

The authors write, "Our findings confirm that people’s perceptions of a message and its sender can be affected not only by the gender of the sender but also by his or her emoji usage. These findings are consistent with gender stereotypes in communication (e.g., Sullins, 1992; Weisberg et al., 2011; Ling et al., 2014), showing that people generally perceive affectionately emotive women as more appropriate than affectionately emotive men."

What wisdom might these results hold for our everyday communications? Well, that depends on your gender. If you are a female, both affectionate and friendly emojis appear to be fair game, even in a work setting. Men, on the other hand, might want to exercise caution when using affectionate emojis. That said, men should not shy away from using the occasional friendly emoji. After all, it may score them some likability points, and at the very least, it will help break down gender stereotypes in text message communication styles.

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Butterworth, S. E., Giuliano, T. A., White, J. R., Cantu, L., & Fraser, K. C. (2019). Sender Gender Influences Emoji Interpretation in Text Messages. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 784.

Sullins, E. (1992). Interpersonal perception between same-sex friends. J. SocialBehav. Pers. 7, 395–414.

Weisberg, Y. J., DeYoung, C. G., and Hirsh, J. B. (2011). Gender differences in personality across the ten aspects of the Big Five. Front. Psychol. 2:178. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00178

Ling, R., Baron, N. S., Lenhart, A., and Campbell, S. W. (2014). Girls text really weird: gender, texting, and identity among teens. J. Child. Media 8, 423–439. doi: 10.1080/17482798.2014.931290