Understanding the meaning of emojis

Elijah O’Bryant, Writer

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Kay Livesay, associate professor of psychology, gave the last faculty lecture of the year on April 17, which focuses on the use of emojis and how they affect user’s meaning in their messages.

Livesay, whose area of expertise in psychology include cognition and language, said that the main goal of the lecture will specifically delve into the representation of emojis in language. Specifically, this lecture looked at the use of emojis in text communication.

Her lecture focused on the results of a survey she created that gave people options on how they could interpret an emoji and how it was used in the actual text.

“When you look at a text and see a word that can be sounded in more than one way, you need some grammatical cue as to understand what word is being used in order to understand it,” Livesay said.

The lecture began with a brief history of the emoji in which it traces how emoji is Japanese for “emotion character”. Despite being so recognizable here in the United States for so long, they have actually existed on Japanese mobile phones since the 1990s.

The popularity of emojis did not hit full force in the United States until the early 2010s. Then, they fell into increased usage amongst iPhone users.

Also included in the lecture Livesay discussed how the meaning is affected by a wider range of interpretation.

Emojis and emoticons are not only visual cues but also have various external factors that can change their meaning.

Among one such factors was how there was a cross-cultural shift in interpreting emojis. For example, the famous emoji in which steam blows out of someone’s nose indicates anger, which is the American interpretation.

However, the original meaning from Japan sees the emoji as a more positive expression, that signifies accomplishment.

Another interesting component of the lecture was specifically, how males and females, in general, interpret an emoji.

Besides having different definitions, there was a trend in how emotional the response would be.

In the survey, participants could rank how positive or negative the emoji can be. Livesay found in her research that females see positive emojis more positively than males, and negative emojis as being more negative.

Also to note, there also a small number of participants that identified as non-binary. However, there were not enough participants in the group for Livesay to properly report any data.  

“What I had to take into consideration were the various age groups that were involved with this,” Livesay said. “Like 18-25 grew up with texting technology, 26-36 was relatively new, and 37 and up came in much later and were a part of the early internet.”

In other words, the emoji you send may not carry your intended message when you deliver the text.

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