Faces and hearts: how emojis communicate emotion | Technology
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They have been with us for so long and, above all, their use is so widespread, that it is difficult to remember a time when mobile keyboards and different applications did not have a button that opened showing a multitude of faces and small illustrations of all kinds . However, these characters did not reach Gmail until 2008 (very different from the current ones, unified under the Unicode consortium), iOS until 2010 (previously in Japan) and Android until 2013. Before, it was necessary to resort to its direct predecessor, the emoticon.
These signs were born out of a need: to give our written messages something equivalent to non-verbal language. If we only have a text, almost always brief, and we do not see the face or the body or hear the voice of our interlocutors, how can we recognize the real intention of the message? Are you happy or angry? Does he speak (write) seriously or ironically? That little drawing that accompanies the words helps put everything in context.
“Emojis perform a function analogous to non-verbal information in face-to-face communication. They have two basic functions. One is to communicate emotions, report the sender’s state of mind or his attitudes and opinions (pleasure, approval, etc.). The other is to clarify the content of the message and reduce its ambiguity”, explains Pilar Ferré, director of the Psycholinguistic Research Group at the Rovira i Virgili University, from where they have studied the use of different emojis in Spanish.
That emojis —and, before that, emoticons— are used to convey emotions is something that no one is unaware of. The very name of these icons makes it clear that emotion is a primary function, although it is difficult to attribute an emotional meaning to the emoji of a foot or that of a filing cabinet. Ferré points out that there are two groups of emojis: “On the one hand, we have faces and other elements, such as hearts, which mostly express emotions.” They are the most used, along with emojis that express gestures (such as thumbs up or thumbs down). Then there are all the emojis that represent objects or actions, which are used much less and whose function is more focused on “complementing, clarifying, or reaffirming the meaning of the sentence”.
Discarded these last emojis to communicate emotions, is it really possible to convey how we feel through a little face? “Emojis in general seem to communicate more enthusiasm or intensity of emotion when added to text than when not added,” says Valeria Pfeifer, a cognitive science researcher at the University of Arizona and co-author of a study on the impact of face emojis on how we perceive the sender’s emotion and how we process the text.
Pilar Ferré refers to another study in which the participants were presented with short positive or negative phrases (“I am sad”, “I am happy”, “it is intelligent”, etc.), some just text and others with an emoji at the end . “The results showed that messages with emojis were perceived as more emotionally intense than without emojis, so that positive messages were perceived as more positive when they were accompanied by a happy emoji, while negative messages were perceived as more negative when they were accompanied by a happy emoji. accompanied by a sad emoji”, details Ferré.
In that same study, participants were also asked to report how they felt after reading the message. It was found that “emotional contagion (that is, feeling sad after reading a sad message) was greater when the message contained an emoji at the end.”
The importance of faces
These emoji faces, which Emojipedia calls “yellow balls of emotion,” work surprisingly similar to facial expressions in person, research has found. For example, in a study published in Biological Psychology in 2021, it was indicated that our neural response when seeing an emoji that expresses pain is similar to that when we see that pain in a face, although in a somewhat lower intensity.
In Pfeifer’s research, they also reached a very curious conclusion that separates the emojis of faces that express positive emotions from those that show sadness or anger: the positive ones reach us in a more general way (joy), while the negative ones transmit emotions of more specific way. “You could say that positive emojis communicate cordiality and general warmth between sender and receiver. In contrast, by adding a negative emoji, such as crying or frowning, we communicate a much more specific emotion to the recipient. We believe this may be because negative emotions are more important than positive ones in this form of communication. For example, I care if my interlocutor is angry or sad, because they are emotions that require different responses”, elaborates Pfeifer by email.
Among the emojis that convey emotion, as Ferré explained, there are also a few that do not represent a face. They are mainly hearts in all their variety, although others are also used to a lesser extent, such as sparkling stars to express joy, for example. Do we feel the same when one of these emojis comes to us in which we understand an emotion, but do not see a face?
It’s hard to say, as it’s not an entirely fair comparison. “It is not very common to have a face and some other emoji that is not a face to express the same emotion,” says Pilar Ferré, referring to a study in which the Rovira i Virgili University and the Complutense University of Madrid collaborated. and the University of Murcia in which they asked users for their assessment of a series of variables on more than 1,000 emojis. In the cases in which those faceless emojis did exist to express emotions, such as the aforementioned little stars, the withered flower for sadness or the angry speech bubble for, yes, anger or rage, “the perceived emotion is clearly more intense with faces.” However, she points out, the heart emoji is an exception: its assessment is very similar to that of the heart-eyed face.
Despite how much it helps communication to introduce emojis to clarify the intention of the message or perceive how the sender feels, not all these faces are equally clear. After all, there are about a hundred facial emojis. What exactly do we mean by including some of the more recent ones, like the melting face emoji or the smiling emoji with a tear?
Among the most used emojis (the thirteenth on Twitter, according to emojitracker), there is one of these faces on which there seems to be little consensus: the one that makes a face in which it shows all the teeth. Although in its official description it is mainly related to negative emotions such as nervousness or discomfort, in a 2016 study half of the participants related it to positive emotions. In another one this year, says Pilar Ferré, he related to 14 different emotions.
Another source of misunderstanding is the slight differences that the same emoji may have depending on the platform on which it is read. In April 2020, in the midst of the novelty of the pandemic, actress Jameela Jamil tweeted the “hand over mouth” emoji from her iPhone to comment on the shock produced by some images of the situation in supermarkets. However, what she saw as a clearly negative expression, on Twitter from the computer she was seen with smiling eyes, with which she seemed that she was laughing at the situation.
Two years later, this summer, Unicode solved the problem and converted the emoji into two to avoid confusion like this: now there is one with neutral eyes, to express that surprise, and another with smiling eyes, to express laughter.
For Valeria Pfeifer, it is also important to keep in mind that some emojis can mean different things to different groups of people. She gives the example of the skull, which the younger generations use to communicate humor, something that “would not be interpreted in the same way by people who are older”. Even so, she clarifies that misunderstandings are something common in all types of communication, with text, emojis or speaking, so you should not be afraid of them and simply learn from them. After all, she concludes, emojis also help to create closeness and maintain it. Any misunderstood emoji can be saved with all the context before and after the relationship.
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