As easy, fun, and potentially helpful emojis may appear to be in quickly expressing an emotion or affirming a message, they don’t mean the same thing across the oceans – or even to folks living in the same country but of diverse cultural backgrounds.
While in Western culture a “thumbs up” pictogram traditionally implies the sender of the emoji is saying “Ok!” or “Great!” or “It’s a go!” or “I agree!”, in Greece and the Middle East, that exact same emoji symbolizes a vulgar and offensive message. So, you may want to think twice about adding that “thumbs-up” emoji to your text, e-newsletter, or blog if the recipient of your electronic message happens to be Greek or from the Middle East.
Emojis v Emoticons
But first let's clarify the difference between emojis and emoticons, as per the Encyclopaedia Britannica's definition:
What Emojis Are Not
Emojis are neither universal nor are a language of their own. The same emoji sent to one person in one country can have a completely different meaning to the same emoji sent to someone else in another country, with a different cultural background, or even from a different generation. This leaves the meaning of an emoji up for interpretation. As a result, it can’t be categorized as some “universal” or “transcultural” message that everyone understands or interprets exactly as the sender meant for it to be understood.
Here are two examples:
- According to a 2018 BBC Future article by polyglot and writer Alex Rawlings, the “applause” emoji, for example, is frequently used in America to symbolize approval, praise, or offer congratulations for something; in China, however, those same “clapping hands” symbolize making love!
- While the “angel” emoji denotes having performed a good dead or connotes innocence through the Western culture, in China that same angel emoji symbolizes death. Imagine the consequences of sending a text message to a somebody in China adding the angel emoji after it!
In addition to not being universally understood or interpreted correctly, emojis are not a language. It is not possible to “write” a poem, blog, or dissertation using only emojis and resting assured that every emoji correctly and thoroughly got the intended message right! Simply by themselves, emojis cannot equate to a meaningful code of acceptable, complete, and thorough communication between senders and receivers.
What Emojis Are
According to a 2017 Today Translations research study conducted by business psychology expert Keith Broni, an emoji is a linguistic tool that is used to enhance our texts and other electronic communication messages. In essence, emojis can be likened to a new type of optional punctuation that can be used to complement an electronic message.
It’s important to be mindful, however, of the fact that every punctuation mark has a very specific purpose, meaning, and universally-accepted interpretation. While emojis are not mandatory at the end (or beginning) of a sentence, they are symbols like punctuation marks and can add to the emotional essence of a message. If sent to a recipient whom the sender knows will understand the intended meaning of the emoji, a little pictogram has the ease and power of creatively complementing a message, affirming the message’s intent, and bringing people together.
Therefore, while emojis do not – in and of themselves – constitute a formal, traditional “language”, their meanings and what they symbolize for different cultures can be translated either by other emojis or by substituting them by a word that conveys the correct meaning, but it is culturally aceptable.
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