How your age, gender and nationality alter how you interpret emojis


Emojis are commonly used for digital communication, such as in text messages or on social media

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Think twice before you reply to a message with just an emoji – people’s interpretation of them can vary.

Previous studies suggest that men and women differ in how they gauge facial expressions. Ruth Filik at the University of Nottingham, UK, and her colleagues wondered whether a person’s gender, as well as other factors, also affects their interpretation of emojis.

To learn more, they enlisted 253 Chinese people and 270 British people aged between 18 and 84 years old, with a roughly equal split of men and women, to take part in an online survey.

The researchers chose 24 emojis that represented one of six emotions: happy, disgusted, fearful, sad, surprised or angry, based on the suggested ones that appear when you type out these words. There were four emojis per emotion, representing the different designs used by Apple, Windows, Android and WeChat.

Each participant then assigned the emojis to the emotion that they thought was the best match.

Women were more likely to match the emojis to the same emotions chosen by the researchers, compared with the men. It may be that women are better at recognising facial expressions, possibly because they make more eye contact, according to the team.

The younger participants also matched up the emojis better than their older counterparts, perhaps because they use these more often.

Meanwhile, the British participants matched the emojis better than the Chinese participants, which may be due to the latter group using emojis in a different way. “For example, it has been suggested that they [people in China] seldom use the happy emoji to express happiness, instead, they use it for negative meanings such as sarcasm,” according to the researchers.

“When you’re then sending someone a message with an emoji, you can’t just assume that they see it the same way that you do,” says Filik.

Isabelle Boutet at the University of Ottawa, Canada, says that matching 24 emojis to just six emotions is quite constrictive. Nevertheless, “there are issues with assigning specific emotional labels to emojis when we don’t know how they’re interpreted by different online communities”, she says. “For example, you would have never thought to use an eggplant as an innuendo if that meaning hadn’t been developed in specific communities.”

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