Writing is a really hard skill to do well, whether it's in your first language or a new language. When we sign or speak a language, we use a lot more than words to get our point across: We use our faces and bodies to give our messages nuance, to help the people we interact with know if we're being serious or silly, skeptical or confident, and we use rhythm and intonation to help clarify what we're trying to say.
So how do we add that nuance, style, and flavor to language when we write? We bet you already know one of the ways we do this… 😉
Of course you do! It's through emoji! 🎉 In celebration of World Emoji Day, we partnered with the workplace communication experts at Slack to learn more about how people all over the world communicate with emoji. But before we share the data, let’s talk a little bit about how emoji function in language!
Is it "emoji" or "emojis"? 😬
Well, both! 😅 The word comes from the Japanese words for "picture" and "character," and was originally "emoji" (with an ending like in kanji, one of the Japanese writing systems). But when a language borrows a word, it might eventually start applying its own grammatical rules to it—so English speakers have started adding the "-s" ending for plural nouns. Neither is right or wrong, because language is constantly changing and adapting!
Emoji are more than meets the 👀
We often use emoji to express things we're used to doing in person in speech or signing, but emoji is evolving as its own system, too!
- To stand in for gestures. In person there are times when we want to let our pals know that we're listening or give a reaction without interrupting, and emoji give us a way to do this in writing! Emoji let us nod (👍), shrug (🤷♀️), and do all sorts of things we might do with our hands and body language in person!
- To replace facial expressions. The right emoji can help the person you're writing to know whether you're being sarcastic (😏), skeptical (🤔), or over it (🙄)—all information we convey in person but that we may not want to explicitly say in words when writing.
- To replace rhythm and intonation. In spoken language, we use the rhythm of our voice to give emphasis to certain words and phrases, and sign languages use visual rhythm. Emoji serve the same purposes in written language! You might use the 😬 emoji to indicate reluctance (the way that, if you were speaking, you might slow your speech and change your intonation and voice to show you’re not thrilled about something) or the 👀to express curiosity, which we can usually hear or see visually (by our voice going “up” at the end of a sentence!
- To clarify meaning. We also use emoji to add information to help the recipient understand our intended meaning. For example, “thank you” on its own might seem incomplete without a ❤️ if you want to express deeper gratitude. If you’re excited about something, replying “Yes” is one way to do it, but “Yes 🙌 🙌 🙌” conveys both agreement and excitement!
- To replace punctuation. You may have heard that the period is a fraught punctuation mark for some generations, but we might use emoji in a similar way to mark the end of a thought! Look at the example above: "Yes 🙌 🙌 🙌" is, kind of, punctuated by those raised hands. You might interpret a similar vibe if the person wrote, “Yes!!!” We may be using punctuation in online communication really differently than the formal writing rules we learned in middle school, but it would seem emoji have taken their place at the end of text messages, Slacks, and beyond!
Do we all use emoji the same way? 🤭
No, not at all! And that's no surprise since we don't all use language the same way, either. How you use emoji—and which emoji you use—is related to where you're from; your age, ethnicity, and gender; and your culture. Plus, emoji use can change based on the context—think about what emoji you send to your colleagues at work versus your best friend of 10 years versus a text chain with a new group of friends you don’t know so well yet. Each of these might be a little different, right? (We wouldn’t be surprised if some readers even write in to tell us that they totally disagree with how we’re interpreting some of the emoji we’re talking about!)
Duolingo recently partnered with Slack to investigate how people around the world use emoji, especially in different situations. Here's some of what we learned about emoji use in the U.S. You can read more about the survey results here!
We'd struggle to communicate without emoji 😰
It’s clear from the survey results that people treat emoji like they treat any other system of communication. People disagree about the meanings of individual emoji (just like how people disagree about the meanings of words), emoji are used differently with different people, and the meanings of emoji can change over time. And they’re also an incredibly important resource. Far from being silly little pictures that detract from “proper” written communication, they help us navigate the complexities of communicating without having access to body language or tone. These results show us just how important emoji are:
- Two out of every three respondents said that emoji helps them communicate faster and with more nuance.
- Two out of three people also said that understanding the intent behind other people's emoji—and having their own emoji understood as well—makes them feel closer and more bonded in the conversation.
- 71% feel that a message seems incomplete without an emoji.
We mess up emoji just like we mess up other communication 🤦♀️
Emoji communication breakdown happens for the same reasons as all language breakdowns! If our intent isn't clear, or if other people associate a different meaning with an emoji, the results can be confusing at best…and not suitable for work at worst. 👀
- 74% of people have had some misunderstanding with an emoji, either their emoji was misunderstood, or they misinterpreted someone else's emoji…or both! 🤣
- The emoji people have most often confused the meaning of are: 👀 😭 😘 🍑.
- For 😭, 25% use it to mean tears of joy, and 25% use it for crying from being upset.
- For 😘, 23% use it for general affection, 26% for platonic love, and 34% for romantic love.
- The emoji produce section was especially divisive, with 33% of respondents using the peach for "feeling flirty" and 37% using it in a more traditional sense, with 19% for hunger and 18% to represent a literal peach. (And results were practically identical for the peach's cousin, the eggplant.) 💀
- Another emoji with multiple meanings—and more opportunities for misunderstandings!—is 🙂: 37% believe it means happy, 24% use it for general positivity…and for 20%, it means deep exasperation or mistrust!
No wonder there's so much miscommunication happening out there!
Our identities influence how we use emoji ✨
Just like language can vary across different groups, so does emoji use! This was especially true when comparing how men and women use emoji, and when looking at patterns in white (non-Hispanic or Latino/a/x) and Black respondents.
- For 💅, 49% of white respondents reported using it for "taking care of myself," while the responses of Black respondents were more varied: 29% use it to mean that there's gossip, 28% say it means "taking care of myself," and 26% don't use it at all.
- Women and Black respondents were more likely than men or white respondents to use 😂 and 😭 to acknowledge that something is intended to be funny, even when they themselves don't really find it funny. In contrast, men and white respondents use 😂 when they think something is genuinely hilarious.
- Women are more likely to use 💸 for a loss of money, while men are more likely to mean an influx of money.
- Men are more likely to say they always use emoji, for all kinds of recipients (coworkers, bosses, family, and friends) compared to women (who report using them less often).
- Black respondents were more likely than white respondents to report using emoji with their boss or manager.
- Black respondents were more likely than white respondents to say that there have been workplace miscommunications due to language or cultural differences.
Emoji help us get our points across 🏆
There's no stopping communication (or attempts at communication 😅), and emoji have evolved to fit our writing needs! They're continuing to change just like language does, so look out 🔎 for the latest emoji meanings and patterns in your own messaging. For more fun facts from our emoji survey, check out the infographic below!