Anyone who’s ever received or sent a text message knows how easily the medium lends itself to misinterpretation. Some people overcompensate for this by spiking their missives with exclamation points. Others rely on GIFs. Or emojis. Or a jaunty combination of all three.
But do these accoutrements make any difference at all?
Turns out, they do—especially when it comes to emojis. “We use text messaging to communicate with many different types of people: our spouse, coworkers, friends. With each person, we play a different social role: wife or husband, coworker, friend. Each social role requires that you act differently, and we perform these acts to remain in the other person’s good graces. Emojis help us perform those actions via text,” explains Dr. Monica Riordan, an experimental psychologist whose recent study analyzes the psychology and affect of emojis.
The results of the study—which asked participants to rate messages with and without emojis—found that the little icons had an overall positive emotional affect. Participants even reported that the emojis, to borrow a term from Marie Kondo, “sparked joy.”
“I was surprised that I found such a consistent pattern, that across several different text messages and different emojis I found higher levels of joy when emojis were present than not,” says Dr. Riordan. “In retrospect it makes a lot of sense—emojis add an element of playfulness, and that translates into joy.”
But that doesn’t mean we should load every text exchange with an abundance of peace signs, tacos, and kissy faces. “Emojis are a form of communication, and just like any other form of communication, there are times we should use them and times we should not,” explains Dr. Riordan. “The inherent playfulness of emojis suggests we should not use them in serious messages. This is true even of ‘angry face’ emojis—the inclusion of them in an angry message actually makes a message seem less angry.” (Something to keep in mind the next time you’re tempted to send the middle finger to that jerk who stood you up.)
As with any interpersonal exchange, the relationship should always be taken into account. “The meaning of emojis is negotiated between the two texters, thus you would use an emoji differently with your mom than with your best friend—not because of their age or gender but rather because of your relationship with them and how you have negotiated a specific communication style between yourselves.”
To that end, Dr. Riordan notes that emojis have another important, special function: They help us build and deepen relationships around shared meanings, and sometimes even become a private language all their own. “For example, the meaning of a unicorn emoji is often unique to a particular set of interlocutors, and almost never refers to an actual unicorn. The meaning of the unicorn emoji can only truly be known if you are one of the interlocutors. Without that insider knowledge, all we can know for sure is that it symbolizes positive emotion between them.”
This story originally appeared on Vogue.
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