Emojis are not truly a language, given that they lack a clear set of rules; yet their communicative abilities are strengthened because of this flexibility and uniqueness. Being unbound by linguistic rules, they engage a user in considering the vast potential emojis have in communication.

Consider the exchange below, between my husband and me:

Source: Monica Riordan

Without a single word, my husband was able to communicate a wealth of information: “I’m sorry you are stressed out; I love you.”

What is unique about this communication, though, is that the interpretation of the emoji rests entirely in the mind of the receiver. Consider the same emoji in a different context, between a friend and myself:

Source: Monica Riordan

In this case, the emoji can be interpreted as “I love that movie.”

Thus, the interpretation of an emoji is uniquely flexible, depending on any number of factors, such as who is sending it and in what context. However, consider the issues this might pose: If the meanings of emojis are so flexible, not just from person-to-person but also text-to-text, then how can we ever know what an emoji means? How can we prevent miscommunication?

I propose that we should look at the idea of miscommunication a bit differently. Miscommunication is often thought of as a bad thing, something to be avoided entirely. This idea is suggested by the definition of miscommunication, which bases the success of the communication on whether the other person understands precisely what the sender meant to say. If the receiver does not, miscommunication has occurred, along with any number of possible repercussions. But let’s look at it from a different point of view: Consider grading the success of a communication based on whether or not it preserves the relationship between the sender and receiver.

We use text messaging to communicate with many different types of people: our spouses or partners, co-workers, and friends. We play a different social role in each relationship. Each social role requires that you act differently, and we perform these actions to preserve the relationship. These actions are called “emotion work.” The unique flexibility of emojis makes them perfectly suited to be tools for this emotion work. Not only are they able to convey a great deal, but the meaning is whatever the receiver wants it to be. Thus, rather than taking the risk of saying the wrong thing, my husband simply texts a heart emoji instead. Because I want my husband to be supportive of me, I choose to interpret the heart emoji in a positive way. Thus the communication is successful; our relationship is preserved. It does not really matter whether I correctly interpreted exactly what he meant when he sent the emoji.

For this idea to make sense, it is important to recognize that emojis are not pictograms. They do not represent actual objects or facial expressions of a sender. In other words, people are not actually “laughing with tears” when they send that emoji in response to a joke, nor are they actually indicating a real trophy when they text the trophy emoji in response to a triumphant story. Instead, emojis are ideograms, representing an idea of some sort. The “laughing with tears” emoji represents finding humor in something, and a trophy emoji represents saying “you’re a winner!”

The meaning of the emoji, then, is flexible from person to person and text to text. The only true consensus surrounding emojis is that they convey positive emotion of some kind—in however such positivity might translate into a particular context for a particular relationship. As such, emojis do possess limitations: If you mean to convey negative affect, it is best to stay away from emojis. Adding an emoji to a negative message actually makes the message seem less negative. Consider the following:

Source: Monica Riordan

This message was rated as negative by nearly every person who saw it, in two different experiments. But consider the same message with an emoji:

Monica Riordan
Source: Monica Riordan

And suddenly the emotion of the message was rated as significantly less negative than the first, again in both experiments. This effect suggests that emojis best represent positive, rather than negative, emotion. As such, emojis can soften a negative message—an insult, criticism, sarcastic statement—allowing significant emotion work that preserves relationships when messages must be negative. However, emojis are best left off of a message in which a person truly wishes to convey a negative emotion, such as anger or fear.

There are other possible ways in which emojis might help us engage in emotion work, thus maintaining (and possibly building) social relationships. One possible way is by generating shared meanings, or inside jokes. For example, if you google the meaning of the unicorn emoji, any number of sites will tell you that it is used to suggest rarity, or disbelief of something that was said. For example:

Source: Monica Riordan

But between a particular friend and me, it means something different. Her daughter requested a unicorn cake for her 4th birthday, and she and I, with every tool at our fingertips and several hours of trying, ultimately failed to satisfy the request. The unicorn emoji between the two of us, then, is an inside joke indicating a massive failure:

Monica Riordan
Source: Monica Riordan

The meaning of the unicorn emoji between her and me, then, is very different from the meaning of the unicorn between me and anyone else. Yet the purpose is the same: To do the emotion work to preserve social relationships.

As research begins exploring the potential of emojis in human communication, it is worth noting the pervasiveness of texting: Most people in the United States own smartphones, and the most common reason they use them is to text. Most teenagers report spending more time texting their friends than communicating in person. Understanding the role that emojis play in the building and maintenance of these social relationships will be key to developing technologies that help better support human communication.


Journal of Language and Social Psychology. doi: 10.1177/0261927X17704238

About the Author

Monica A Riordan Ph.D.

Monica Riordan, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. 

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