That emoji you sent might not mean what you think

Science Friday
Emoji pillows

Emoji can be open to interpretation.

Forsaken Fotos/Flickr

A new study finds that emoji, the tiny graphic images increasingly used in text communications, can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In other words? That round-faced emoticon at the end of your text message might not mean what you think.

“I like to think of emoji as like facial expressions, tones of voice, gestures, all those things that you add on as a kind of paralinguistic extra information on top of the literal words you're saying,” says linguist and writer Gretchen McCulloch. “And just like you wouldn't want to have a conversation with your hands tied behind your back and a paper bag over your head and in a monotone, it’s more enriching to have a conversation that involves emoji rather than just plain words that you're sending to someone.” 

McCulloch is a fan of emoji, but she says they are confusing. According to the study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota, some 40 percent of people, when shown an emoji, would differ in describing the sentiment by more than two ratings. 

“This is a great study because it really confirms what a lot of people have been saying anecdotally,” McCulloch says. “They're not sure what all the emoji mean or their friends’ emoji look different on their Android than on their IOS device. And I think that, you know, putting some concrete numbers to a study like this is hopefully something that will lead to better understanding and maybe even better standardization of what these emoji look like across different platforms.”

Researchers found that, because of differences in graphic design, certain characters could convey a slightly negative emotion when rendered on one mobile phone platform, but a slightly positive emotion when viewed on another platform. And the problem is not just a matter of translating from Apple-ese to Android-ese. Even within one phone system, different users could interpret a single character in a range of ways. McCulloch says that misunderstanding might have to do with cultural differences. 

“Certain emoji, especially, are influenced by Japanese manga standards for what facial expressions look like. So the smiling eyes — the kind of pointy-looking flat eyes that look like a carrot symbol on certain emoji are influenced by Japanese manga conventions that say, ‘This is what a smiling-eyes character looks like. And if you're not very familiar with manga, and many people in the Western world aren’t, you don't really look at those eyes and you look instead at the mouth and the mouth looks flat. And we know that the flat mouth is not supposed to be smiling,” McCulloch says. “So I think that kind of cross-cultural differences in what a conventional emotional representation looks like in a smiley face are something that sometimes leads to this misunderstanding.”

Study author Hannah Miller says the solution to the problem of confusing emojis could involve developing tools to render the emojis on a variety of devices. 

“Our lab is really interested in looking at what we might be able to do on the technical side,” she says. “You could envision building tools such as, for example, maybe being able to see what the rendering was intended to look like. So when you're viewing it, having the ability to see what the sender had sent on the other side. Or possibly even more sophisticated tools like being able to automatically detect the likelihood that a certain rendering may be construed differently on another platform.”

Still, Miller likes to keep the problem of misinterpreted emoji in context.

“We've shown that this opportunity for miscommunication can occur, but we don't necessarily think that it is so severe that World War III is going to happen because of emoji,” Miller says. “I think the thing is that this study has created awareness of the fact that it might turn out differently on different platforms and so, just thinking about that and thinking, maybe, who are you sending this to and what device might they see this on? You could even look up what they will see it as.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.