Emojis are not a universal language: gender, age and culture influence their interpretation | Technology


Emojis are part of our daily lives. Chat messages, posts and comments on social networks are almost always accompanied by, among others, yellow faces, animals, hearts, even flames of fire, depending on the feelings we want to reinforce. These small, brightly colored symbols are so common that there are even people who interpret their absence in messages as a sign that their interlocutor is rude or angry. However, not everyone interprets or identifies them in the same way. Researchers from the University of Nottingham say that age, gender and culture can influence the way we understand them.

In his studio, published in the magazine Plos One In February, it had 523 participants of Chinese and British origin between 18 and 84 years old. The authors used six emojis from four different formats (Apple, Android, Windows and WeChat) representing six emotions: happiness, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise and anger. It shows that women are slightly more accurate in classifying happy, fearful, sad and angry emojis. Ruth Filik, lead author of the research, believes it is a matter of interpretation rather than accuracy. In this case, they labeled the emojis the same way as the researchers more often than they did, she notes.

These are the six emojis used in the study to show happiness, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise and anger.Plos ONE

There were no differences between women and men in the recognition of faces representing surprise and disgust. In fact, this last emotion was the only one in which no differences were seen by age, gender or culture when identifying the face that represented it. Xandra Garzón, a specialist in the figure of women in the digital world, raises the possibility that there is a greater tendency to show only positive emotions, which relegates symbols of negative emotions to less frequent use. In this way, less use could mean more difficulties in identifying or interpreting it.

Regarding age, there is a “general advantage in accuracy for younger participants,” the text says. One of the factors taken into account is how familiar the participants were with each symbol evaluated. This lack of habit may explain the differences in results compared to younger people, says Filik. Garzón believes that a clear example of generational differences are family WhatsApp groups: “The use is totally different to the point that it often escapes us older people.”

Culture is the aspect that makes the most difference. The British participants were more accurate in associating the faces with the corresponding emotion than the Chinese. The authors indicate in the study that the use of these symbols may be behind this result. Chinese respondents tend to represent these emotions with completely different emojis: for example, they use a happy face with negative connotations such as sarcasm.

Agnese Sampietro, Spanish professor at the Jaume I University (UJI) and researcher at the same institution, points out that it is difficult to find functions of emojis that can be considered universal and that it is important how these symbols are presented to respondents. In a decontextualized way, it is normal for there to be different interpretations, but if some context is given, perhaps it can help, details the linguist, who has several studies on the subject. Sampietro also emphasizes that differences in identifying emojis are not necessarily a sign of misunderstandings or obstacles in communication.

Mobile screen with emoticon menu.
Mobile screen with emoticon menu. picture alliance (dpa/picture alliance via Getty I)

Cristina Vela, vice dean from the University of Valladolid (UVA) and author of the book Emojis in written digital interaction (Arco Libros – La Muralla, 2021), explains that these symbols take on their meaning with the use given to them. “You interpret them with use and that occurs in a speech community that is marked by a culture.”

Vela highlights that studies such as the one from the University of Nottingham help shed light on interesting aspects of current communication and can help improve it. Research in the virtual sphere is increasingly important because part of our lives occur in these virtual environments, says Garzón, a specialist in the figure of women in the digital world. “The Internet is where we do our leisure, where we work, where we do absolutely everything.”

Communication evolves

Emojis help to understand what the person sending the message really wants to express and give “a touch of color,” says Sampietro. “It allows you to personalize a conversation that could be too flat with the default format of social networks,” he adds. Garzón maintains that they make communication simpler and more fluid, “even more effective.” Although not all of their use is due to these aspects, there are also those who use them because “it looks pretty,” says Vela, a linguist at UVA.

The interpretation and its use depend on who the interlocutor is. In a work chat The same emojis are not used as in a conversation with family or friends, because the relationship between the interlocutors in the first case is usually less close than in the second, Sampietro exemplifies. Garzón points out that the communicative function is also different: “Probably, what I feel about something is not as interesting in the work group and certain emojis do not make sense there.”

Both the symbols and their interpretation have changed over time. These tiny pictograms have been increasing in complexity and diversity. In 2015, emojis representing body parts or people performing actions allowed the change in skin tone. That same year they also included homosexual couples. For Garzón, they are details that may be banal, but they are not at all. It is a question of identity: “These types of digital representations are absolutely fundamental.”

These symbols have become part of the identity, in such a way that we could even recognize some interlocutors in a chat solely by the emojis they send, defends Garzón. Emojis facilitate communication, but we give them the meaning, he concludes.

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