That Emoji Doesn't Always Mean What You Think It Does

Study shows men, women get different emotional impact
By Liz MacGahan,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 30, 2021 3:00 PM CST
Men and Women See Emojis Differently
File photo of an emoji painted on a house in Manhattan Beach, Calif. A new study shows men and women get different levels of emotional impact from various emoji.   (AP Photo/Natalie Rice)

Communication is hard. And in fraught or ambiguous situations, or in a context where precision is important, word choice is all important. But what if you aren’t even using words? What does that smiley face even mean? Turns out emoji can mean different things to different people, and the difference appears to really show up as a difference between men and women. For example, the thinking emoji produced a clear split. "Men see that as slightly positive, women as slightly negative," Lara Jones, an associate professor at Wayne State University in Michigan, tells the Wall Street Journal. In a study published in Computers in Human Behavior, Jones lays out the differences.

The study, broken down in Psychology Today, shows that men and women use emojis differently, and perceive them differently. All study participants—299 students ages 17 to 35—say they mainly use the symbols to message friends, partners, and relatives, and seldom while communicating with bosses or teachers. But in those texts and Facebook messages, women tended to think of emojis as showing more intense positive or negative emotions.

  • A surprised face with eyebrows raised looked slightly positive to men and slightly negative to women. Interestingly, the eyebrows seem to matter: the same surprised face without eyebrows elicited the same reaction from men and women.
  • The neutral face with a line for a mouth looked neutral to men but negative to women.
  • And when men and women agreed an emoji was positive, like, say, a smiling face, women saw it as more positive.
Jones' takeaway? Consider your audience—and maybe don't use them at work. "You might also consider the formality of the workplace," she says. "In fact, I think I should probably stop using emojis with my students, too." (More scientific study stories.)

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