Self-expression beyond just text

Currently, there is no “one” guide or dictionary that assigns a particular meaning or emotion to an emoji. Quite literally, communications of emotion by emoji have evolved in an almost subculture way. A review of literature shows how emoji have been used to date as communication methods within the context of science and culture, as well as how emotion relates to company culture. A study of 21 million tweets that contained emoji shows how people use emoji in casual conversation to relate to one another. The top uses cited included: decorative, as a short-cut for a word, emotional use like expressing sarcasm by combining an emoji with the opposite expression to the words it’s paired with (“that was a great meeting 🙄”), an emotional reaction (😱), or, just as stand-alone modes of communicating feelings and/or context. The study hypothesizes the rise of the adoption and use of emoji as satisfying a desire for self-expression beyond just text (Pohl et al., 2017).

How does an emoji communicate a human emotion? – an emerging norm

Ideally, we could identify a study that shows emoji have a similar effect on the brain as facial expressions of emotion. In a psychophysiology journal article (most of which was way beyond my comprehension) researchers indicated that the “processing of emojis might be facilitated through a featural processing strategy to encode them similar to real faces” (Weiß et al., 2019). Another study tried to determine if there is a shared emotional interpretation for emoji. In 2020, the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior published a study that showed the results of surveys of adults that were asked to align specific emotions with an emoji face. Overall, there were many consistencies, especially for the expression of the emotion of anger. Almost everyone agreed that this face 😠 means you are angry (Franco & Fugate, 2020). This body of research indicates that we are able to receive the emotional communication and that there is an emerging norm that connects an emoji to a specific meaning.

Pre-literate communication

Emoji can be used to communicate emotion when study participants do not yet have language processing skills. Pre-set emoji scales have been tested as a way to gather emotional response to food stimuli. In a study of grade school-aged children, those who were too young to read were better able to answer survey questions with the appropriate emoji – 😍 for foods they loved and 😖 for foods they found to be disgusting. The study compared this pre-linguistic group to children who were a little bit older and able to process a word response (super good to super bad). In this case where the subjects can’t yet process words, emoji proved to be a suitable substitute for participants to share their emotional responses to food groups (Swaney-Stueve et al., 2018).

A substitute for in-person non-verbal cues

In person, we normally pick up on another’s emotional state by the nonverbal cues we see. Can the small face that we send via electronic device substitute for an in-person nonverbal cue? One study found emoji were effective in sharing emotion over the computer when individuals were not face-to-face and able to read emotional expression. Specifically, the emotion of joy with this emoji 😂 was found to effectively communicate the emotion of joy as a non-verbal cue delivered via computer (Riordan, 2017).

A subversive side

Culturally, emoji have evolved to express concepts symbolically that are highly emotionally charged. Organizations would benefit from an understanding of emoji that are commonly used in sexually suggestive contexts. This is a very strong emotional expression and when mis-directed can be inappropriate for the workplace and risk sexual harassment issues. The most common emoji used for these contexts are the tongue emoji 👅, the eggplant emoji 🍆 and the sweat droplets emoji 💦(Thomson et. al., 2018).  

Personality-based preferences for emoji?

Some research on emoji has explored the possibility that emoji could be used as a language-free way to assess personality and individual differences. The results are interesting – neuroticism showed a strong relationship with negative affect emoji, and extraversion showed a strong relationship with positive affect emoji while no association was shown for conscientiousness and openness which the researchers explained was likely due to the fact that those traits are more associated with cognitive ability than emotion (Marengo et al., 2017).

Join us in the experiment

The takeaway from a broad exploration of emoji-related research indicates many ways emoji could eventually be used in the workplace to understand emotional culture. From providing expressions for those who are not yet able to read or whose native languages provide a communication barrier, to increasing sharing and connectedness in a world of self-isolation, the possibilities of harnessing the power of emoji as a new language is exciting. At Mindful Appy, we are setting up a technological platform that will help find trends in emoji use, determine the effectiveness of emoji as a high-engagement feedback mode, and leveraging the power of the tiny text image as a method of discovering emotional trends.

By Tina Schweiger, Product Designer for Mindful Appy
I’m currently practicing as a digital strategist and designer, and researching emotion and mindfulness as it relates to the workplace. I’m a candidate at Harvard Extension School for a Master’s Degree in Industrial Organizational Psychology.