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Faces and Hearts: How Emojis Convey Emotion | technology


Emojis were born out of a need: to give our written messages something equivalent to nonverbal language.
Emojis were born out of a need: to give our written messages something equivalent to nonverbal language.GT

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 various applications did not have an open button displaying many faces and small illustrations of all kinds. However, these characters did not arrive in Gmail until 2008 (completely different from the current characters, standardized under the Unicode Consortium), iOS until 2010 (formerly in Japan) and Android until 2013. Before that, it was necessary to resort to Its direct predecessor, emoticon.

These signs were born out of a need: to give our written messages something equivalent to nonverbal language. If we only have a text, often brief, and do not see the face or the body or hear the voice of our interlocutors, how can we recognize the true intent of the message? Are you happy or angry? Does he speak (write) seriously or sarcastically? This small graphic accompanying the words helps put everything in context.

Emojis perform a similar function to nonverbal information in face-to-face communication. They have two primary functions. One of them is communicating feelings, reporting the sender’s state of mind or their attitudes and opinions (pleasure, approval, etc.). The other is to clarify the content of the message and reduce its ambiguity,” explains Pilar Ferre, director of the psycholinguistic research group at the University of Rovira i Virgili, where they studied the use of different emoji in Spanish.

Those emojis – and before that emojis – are used to express feelings, something that no one knows about. The name of these particular symbols makes it clear that emotion is an essential function, although it is difficult to attribute an emotional meaning to an emoji of a foot or a filing cabinet. Ferret points out that there are two sets of emoji: “On the one hand, we have faces and other elements, such as hearts, that mostly express feelings.” They are the most commonly used, along with emojis that express gestures (such as thumbs up or thumbs down). Then there are all the emojis representing objects or actions, which are used much less and whose function is more focused on “completing, clarifying or re-affirming” the meaning of the sentence.

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I ditched these last emojis to communicate emotion, so is it really possible to convey how we feel through a little face? Valeria Pfeiffer, a cognitive sciences researcher at the University of Arizona and co-author of a study on the impact of facial emojis on how we perceive sender emotion and how we process text, says.

Pilar Ferret cites another study in which participants were presented with short positive or negative statements (“I’m sad,” “I’m happy,” “He’s smart,” etc.), some just text and others with an emoji on the end. “The results showed that messages with emojis are perceived as more emotionally intense than those without emojis, so positive messages are perceived as more positive when accompanied by happy emojis, while negative messages are perceived as more Negative when accompanied by a happy emoji. A happy emoji. Accompanied by a sad emoji,” Ferreh details.

In the same study, participants were also asked to report how they felt after reading the message. He found that “emotional contagion (i.e. feeling sad after reading a sad message) was greater when the message contained an emoji at the end.”

The importance of faces

A study finds that these emoji faces, which Emojipedia calls “yellow balls of emotion,” surprisingly resemble personal facial expressions. For example, in a study published in Biological Psychology in 2021, it was suggested that our neural response when seeing an emoji expressing pain is similar to that when we see this pain in the face, although its intensity is somewhat lower.

In Pfeiffer’s research, they also came up with a very strange finding that separates face emojis that express positive emotions and those that show sadness or anger: the positives generally reach us (joy), while the negatives convey feelings of sadness or anger. A more specific method. “You could say that positive emoji convey general friendliness and warmth between sender and receiver. In contrast, by adding a negative emoji, such as crying or frowning, we convey more specific feelings to the recipient. We think this may be because negative feelings are more important than positive ones. In this type of communication. For example, I care if my interlocutor is angry or sad, because they are feelings that require different responses,” Pfeiffer explains via email.

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Among the emoji that convey emotion, Ferret explained, there are also a few that are not a face. They are basically hearts in all their diversity, although others are also used to a lesser degree, such as sparkling stars to express joy, for example. Do we feel the same when one of these emojis comes to us and we understand an emotion, but we don’t see a face?

It’s hard to say, because it’s not an entirely fair comparison. “It’s not very common to have a face and some other non-face emoji to express the same emotion,” says Pilar Ferré, referring to a study in which the University of Rovira i Virgili and the Complutense University of Madrid collaborated. University of Murcia where they asked users to rate a series of variables on more than 1,000 emojis. In cases where there are those faceless emojis to express feelings, like the little stars mentioned above, the withering flower of sadness or an angry speech bubble, yes, anger or anger, “the perceived feelings are obviously much more intense with faces.” However, Indicates that the heart emoji is an exception: its rating is very similar to evaluating a face with heart eyes.

blurred faces

Despite how much communication helps to offer emojis to clarify the intent of the message or realize how the sender is feeling, not all of these faces are equally visible. After all, there are about a hundred facial emojis. What exactly do we mean by including some of the latest ones, like a melting face or a tearful smiley emoji?

Among the most used emoji (the thirteenth on Twitter, according to emojitracker), there is one such face on which there seems to be little consensus: the one that makes a face showing all the teeth. Although in its official description it is mainly associated with negative emotions such as nervousness or irritability, half of the participants in a 2016 study associated it with positive emotions. In another event this year, says Pilarre Ferret, it was related to 14 different emotions.

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Another source of misunderstanding is the slight differences that the same emoji may have depending on the platform it was read on. In April 2020, amid the novelty of the pandemic, actress Jamila Jamil tweeted a “handing mouth” emoji from her iPhone to comment on the shock some pictures of the situation in supermarkets had caused. However, what she saw was an obvious negative expression, on Twitter from the computer, she was seen with smiling eyes, what seemed to be laughing at the situation.

Two years later, this summer, Unicode solved the problem and switched the emoji to two to avoid confusion like this: there is now one with neutral eyes to express that surprise, and another with smiling eyes to express laughter.

For Valeria Pfeifer, it’s also important to keep in mind that some emojis can mean different things to different groups of people. He gives the example of the skull, which younger generations use to convey humor, something that “cannot be explained in the same way by older people.” However, make it clear that misunderstandings are common in all types of communication, whether with text, emojis or speaking, so you should not be afraid of them and simply learn from them. After all, he concludes, emojis also help create and maintain closeness. Any misunderstood emoji can be saved in all context before and after the relationship.

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