Emojis were supposed to be the great equalizer: a language all its own capable of transcending borders and cultural differences.
Not so fast, say a group of researchers who found that different people had vastly different interpretations of some popular emojis. The researchers published their findings for GroupLens, a research lab based out of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
“I think some people thought that they could use [emojis] with little risk and what we found is that it actually is at high risk of miscommunication,” Hannah Miller, a Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota and one of the authors of the study, said in a phone interview.
For example, the researchers found that when people receive the “face with tears of joy” emoji — which Oxford Dictionaries declared its word of the year — some interpret it positively, while others will interpret it negatively.
“We find that only 4.5 percent of emoji symbols we examined have consistently low variance in their sentiment interpretations,” the researchers write. “Conversely, in 25 percent of the cases where participants rated the same rendering, they did not agree on whether the sentiment was positive, neutral, or negative.”
This, the researchers found, only gets more complicated when you’re texting across platforms, because the same emojis are rendered differently on an iPhone than they are on a Samsung Galaxy, for example.
Via Miller, here’s how “grinning face with smiling eyes” would look on each platform and how the study’s subjects interpreted it:
And here is an example of how that may work out in a real-life conversation:
Jacob Thebault-Spieker, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota and another of the study’s authors, said maybe part of the confusion comes from the newness of the language.
“The understanding that we have from theory suggests that people build shared meaning of communication and interaction over time,” he said. “These are new. People are building up their new norms within a group of friends or within a geographic region or perhaps even within a culture and those things may start to even out over time.”
One thing that could help, said Miller, is a dictionary or in this case emojipedia.com, the authority on the meaning of emojis.
If that doesn’t work, you can stick to old fashioned emoticons 🙁
Those are less likely to be misconstrued.
We’ll leave you with a graphic from the paper that ranks how misconstrued emojis are across platforms. From left to right, it shows most misconstrued to least misconstrued: