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An emoji worth a thousand words?
by Eleanor Southern-Wilkins

Emoji! A huge topic! This has been a source of much discussion in the company recently, with many strong opinions and some lively debate. So, of course, it was time for a blog.

One of the first things I found when I began my research, with a bit of preliminary googling to get in the emoji mood, was, a website that tracks emoji usage on Twitter in real time. When you click on the link, and before you’re taken to the website, a warning pops up that if you suffer from epilepsy, to proceed with caution. And rightly so – the website is psychedelic. There are dozens of panels, each showing an emoji and the number of times it’s been used on Twitter. Every time the number updates, it flashes green. The first fifty or so emoji are updating pretty much nonstop. The most used ones – the crying laughing emoji 😂 (also called Face with Tears of Joy, apparently), the heart ❤️– are a constant blur of green flashes. It’s an impressive representation both of our love, as a human population, of social media, and the way we have so readily embraced emoji. We really do use them all the time!

Or some of us do, at least. Of course, some are unwilling to use or even be in the presence of emoji. As is always the case with new developments, whether linguistic, technological or otherwise, people respond differently, and attitudes vary between demographics. Research indicates, for example, that in the case of emoji, older groups are less likely to view them positively and less likely to use them than younger groups. Women apparently use emoji more than men, and view them more positively too.[1]

But… what’s the deal with emoji? And why do they provoke such strong responses in so many people? What’s… the point?

Well, this is exactly it. Emoji may seem trivial at first glance, and people may view them as unnecessary, inappropriate, or – yes – the downfall of language as we know it. This is a good example of the many horror-filled articles on the topic of language change, and how any new ways in which younger people use language are destroying civilisation probably, and we should all be very afraid. 😱

But the truth is, emoji – like all aspects of communication, really – serve a purpose.

‘Words are not used randomly, and neither are emoji.’ [2]

Nothing in language is neutral, and all the choices we make about how to communicate combine to create the eventual message that is transmitted to the person we’re talking or writing to. Research demonstrates that there are various reasons for using emoji (or emoticons) – for example, they can aid personal expression, reduce ambiguity, and lighten the mood.[3]

In written communication, we miss out on the traditional nonverbal cues that we have in face-to-face interactions – tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions, body language. Emoji are just one way in which people express these cues in writing. Adding a positive emoji has been shown to make a message more positive than if there hadn’t been one, and adding a negative one makes it more negative.[4] Consider the examples below:

Maybe it’s because I’m an oversensitive snowflake, but to me, the reply on the left is abrupt and possibly rude, while the one on the right is softened by the sad emoji. Yes, the person still rejected the offer of dinner – but at least they're sad about it.

Likewise, if we look at this example:

One is reassuring, the other is… less so. I’m not saying the message without the emoji is saying ‘No that’s not fine’… but it could be. (Of course, the emoji reply could be intensely passive aggressive for all we know – but let’s not complicate things.) The inclusion of a nice, non-threatening smiley face just makes everything seem a lot more relaxing, doesn’t it?

‘[Emoji] serve a prescriptive purpose, indicating intentions for interpretation’

The point is, with a medium like written messaging, we are limited in terms of extra information we can provide to help get our thoughts across. You can’t add a picture of your own facial expression for every sentence; you can’t specify what tone of voice you want your message to be read in; you can’t indicate whether you’re being sarcastic or just intentionally rude. Apart from, with emoji – you can! You can do all these things.

Quite the revolutionary invention, when you think about it.

They’re not perfect, of course. Issues arise when there’s confusion about what emoji mean. See, for example, the many tragic yet hilarious instances of people confusing the crying laughing emoji for the crying one. This isn’t limited to older generations, either; just the other day I had to ask my friend what she meant when she used the upside-down smiling emoji, which she does pretty much constantly: 🙃. Her answer? Something along the lines of, “it can mean whatever you want it to mean”. Right. Great. 🙄

But love them or hate them, use them every other word or never at all, we have to accept that emoji are not going anywhere. So, let’s make them work for us. In ContactEngine’s customer conversations, we currently don’t send out any emoji – but we receive them in customer responses fairly often. People really do use them all the time, and they're not limited to social communication either. We’re taking this opportunity to investigate the nuanced relationship between personal and formal language, and to tread the fine line between being friendly and approachable and being unprofessional or not serious enough. That doesn’t mean we’re going to start communicating entirely in emoji – but it does mean they might not always be 👎💩💀.

Tune in next time for my discussion about emoji and companies – to what extent, if at all, should we be using them? Would people even want us to? And how far is too far? 🕵️



[1] Pradaa, Marília et al. (2018). ‘Motives, frequency and attitudes toward emoji and emoticon use’. Telematics and Informatics, 35(7), 1925-1934

[2] Na’aman, Noa, Hannah Provenza & Orion Montoya. MojiSem: Varying linguistic purposes of emoji in (Twitter) context. Available at:

[3] Kaye, Linda K. et al (2016). ‘“Turn that frown upside-down”: A contextual account of emoticon usage on different virtual platforms’, Computers in Human Behaviour, 60, 463-467

[4] Walther, Joseph, and Kyle D’Addario (2001). ‘The Impacts of Emoticons on Message Interpretation in Computer-Mediated Communication’, Social Science Computer Review, 19, 323-45, p330

[5] Menchik, Daniel A. & Xiaoli Tian (2008). ‘Putting Social Context into Text: The Semiotics of E‐mail Interaction’, American Journal of Sociology, 114(2), 332-370, p361

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