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The Power of the Emoji

Given that there are approximately 6 billion emojis, emoticons or stickers flying around the world every day in our conversations and through the apps we use, it is no surprise that the emoji has made its way to appearing almost everywhere we look, be it in dictionaries, chats, workplace emails or even presidential campaigns!

The term ‘emoji’ comes from the Japanese word which literally means “picture word” (e = picture and moji = word). Emojis are those small icons - the smiley faces, winking eyes, different animals, hearts of all sizes and colours, that we use in text messages, emails and social media. They are everywhere these days because they increase the precision and nuance of our often very brief and open-to-misunderstanding communications. Since they first appeared, they have quickly become a part of the mainstream communication around the globe allowing people, with different languages and cultural backgrounds, to share and interpret more accurately ideas and emotions. In the age of social media, messaging apps and digital technology, the notion that words are powerful has been extended to Emojis as well, and it seems that these little colourful characters on our screens are becoming an indispensable part of our lives with every passing day. This piece will look at trying to understand the true power that these characters hold, which is more than just adding colour to the conversation, but the way they have changed the way we communicate with and interpret the world around us as well as the likely impact they have on our Mental Health.

Today, research shows that 92 percent of Internet users use emojis as they believe it makes it easier for others to understand them, create better personal connections and are a better fit than words in many instances. Of the 6 billion emojis used every day, while 31 percent of all the emojis sent are expressions of joy, but that being said there is now a slight rise in the use of negative emoji, reflecting that we are slowly getting a little more comfortable with expressing negative emotions as well online. Social Media platforms are also taking a note of this - for instance, Facebook has created a designated list of warning signs to help users identify if their online friends seem particularly upset and one of the possible signs was the overuse of negative emojis. In addition to this, a recent report by Adobe focuses on showing us just how much emojis contribute to our daily communication, spreading love and empathy beyond language barriers. The study's most significant finding perhaps has been that emojis can help foster empathy. It was 88 per cent of respondents that said they are more likely to feel empathetic towards someone if they use an emoji. 55 percent respondents felt more comfortable expressing their emotions through emojis than phone conversations while this stands at 51 percent in favour of emojis over in-person conversations. Additionally, more than half the respondents also said that using emojis in their communications has positively impacted their Mental Health. There’s also recent evidence that suggest that that emojis are actually shifting our vocabulary. For instance, Instagram discovered that as emoji use goes up, Internet slang like “rofl,””lol,” “bae,” etc., goes down as users opt to use their emoji counterparts instead.

Emojis can be used in n number of ways, but some of the most common reasons include that they help to brighten and lighten the mood by introducing some humour, they can help give us a more comfortable way to communicate when words fail us or serve as a more comfortable way to express ourselves. Emojis are not labelled, so you may feel that their meaning is up to those who use them, but given that they often represent an easily identified thought or feeling in their depiction itself, they are mostly understood in context and in this way can add tone and clarity to our communications. Emojis also allow people to express themselves more authentically as these little characters enhance the semantic value of our messages. A sentence written without an emoji feels less personal and formal and adding in an emoji often adds emotions to your text and the other person feels more connected to you and your nature while reading it, and this has also been supported by research where researchers have found that a sentence that ends with an emoji has double the chances of making the reader feel your intentions and context.

Emojis help us express ourselves better. Sometimes, putting our feelings into words can be difficult and it can be hard enough to always know exactly how we're feeling and why ourselves, let alone us trying to explain it to a friend; and that’s where many times the emojis on our keyboards save the day. Those smileys, fire symbols, piles of poo, different hearts are so much more than characters - they can help reveal so much about how we feel, improve communication and ease our emotional burden. They can also bring a new dimension and more nuances to our words. For instance, using emojis like a face-palm next to that “I’m OK” message or a tiny image of an explosion after saying “I just nailed me exam”- can help add an emotional layer our words that can be beneficial to the other side to get a better feel for your mental state without even having to ask. In this sense, they almost serve as the non-verbal cues to complement our words in a digital setting. Emojis are recognised and processed by the brain as nonverbal information, which means we read them as emotional communication, not words. And emotional communication can just as important as words in conveying a message clearly. Essentially, emojis are doing what the tone of voice does on the telephone and what expressions and gestures do in face-to-face communication.

That being said, there is flip side to this is that emojis might often become a shield for us to cover how we really feel. Think about this - how often have you found yourself replying to a message with an emoji, or maybe four? Having this basket of emotions at our fingertips to respond to things and having our phones at our disposal for everything makes us vulnerable to using humour as a scapegoat. We might to use happy smileys to hide darker realities and not confront our emotions head on. So, while on one hand emojis can be a helpful way of expressing feelings we might not have words for, it can help to have a ‘Feelings chart’ at your disposal to know that you're reality is matching the emoji you’re using. There may also be times when emojis can be used as a way to balance out an emotional statement, soften a blow or to cut off a feeling or conversation because it feels too vulnerable. While this can diffuse the immediate situation, in the long run, this way of dismissing our feelings can build up and be detrimental to our Mental Health and Wellbeing. We need to be mindful in how we harness the power of the emojis at our disposal.

Emojis have created a new brain pattern within us in recent years. Though we go through life mostly unaware of it but as humans oftentimes we mirror each other’s expressions, feelings and emotions when we’re talking in person. This emotional contagion is a big part of how we show empathy, foster connection and build authentic relationships with others. But online, we’re missing that crucial element of empathy and emotion and that is the void which has been filled by Emojis. Interestingly, researchers have noticed that when we look at a smiley face online, the same parts of the brain are activated as when we look at a real human face. Our mood changes, and we might even alter our facial expressions to match the emotion of the emoji that we see. What’s really interesting is that this is not something we’re born with as babies, it is something that our brains have developed in the last few years with the emergence of these new technologies and features like the emoji and the emoticon.

All that being said, this is an interesting and evolving field of research which is gaining a lot of interest in recent times across disciplines. For instance, the relationship between language, emojis, and emotions is now becoming a growing area of research and is also being studied by several disciplines such as psychology, linguistics and natural language processing (NLP) to name a few. As texting and social media has become such an integral part of the communication and with new emojis being added from time to time to keep up with changing times, these little characters are here to stay. Their role in helping us express ourselves will continue to be profound till we can find something new, but till then, let’s just say that an Emoji is now worth a thousand words!


Written by: Vedica Podar

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July, 2021

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