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NEW YORK — Seven in 10 Americans believe messages are “incomplete” without an emoji. A survey of 9,400 hybrid and remote workers, spread across 11 different countries — including 1,000 in the U.S. — reveals that Americans are more likely to find emoji-less texts or messages to be lacking, compared to global respondents (71% vs. 57%).

Even though Americans are especially pro-emoji, not everyone agrees on their meanings or how to use them — just like how people use language differently. What do specific emojis actually mean?

Conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Duolingo and Slack in partnership for World Emoji Day, researchers showed respondents different emoji and asked what meaning they’re most likely to associate with them. It turns out, a quarter of Americans are confused about the distinction between the “loudly crying (????)” emoji and “face with tears of joy (????).” When seeing the “loudly crying” emoji, 25 percent say they use it to show that “I’m crying tears of joy” — the same number as those who use “sobbing/upset crying.”

While the emoji do look similar, respondents should be careful, lest they “laugh” at an inappropriate time. That’s not the only emoji that might be causing confusion: 38 percent of American respondents believe the skull emoji (????) represents death, but a similar number (34%) use it to show that something is so funny, they’re “dead.”

If a co-worker sends an eggplant emoji (????), hold off before immediately calling HR. A fifth of U.S. respondents (21%) believe the eggplant is nothing more than a literal representation of the fruit. However, one in three Americans admit they use the eggplant to show they’re “feeling flirty,” and 14 percent admit they’ve confused the meaning of that particular emoji.

Globally, younger generations overall were more likely to say an emoji they’ve sent was misunderstood by the recipient (31% of Gen Z and 24% of millennials).

Emoji can mean different things around the world

The survey also looked at how emoji usage and meaning can vary across different countries, and looked more specifically at its use in the workplace. For global companies, results show that emoji may be an easy source of miscommunication — as the meanings can differ greatly depending on where someone is from.

Globally, when seeing the “money with wings (????)” emoji, respondents are split on whether it means a loss of money (28%) or an influx of money (31%). This also varied by country, as respondents from Japan were much more likely to select “loss of money” (59%) — compared to only seven percent who thinks it refers to an influx.

When it comes to the “face throwing a kiss (????),” U.S. respondents were slightly more likely to use it in a romantic way than in a platonic way (34% vs. 26%) — as were Indian respondents (52% vs. 27%). Japan was the opposite, with three in 10 Japanese respondents using the kissy face in a platonic sense, compared to 16 percent who use it romantically.

The “slightly smiling face (????)” may not be as positive as some people think. While “feeling happy” (38%) and “general positivity” (39%) are the top uses for the emoji globally, many people also use it to show “deep exasperation and/or distrust” (14%).

This more negative interpretation was more common in specific countries, including the U.S., where one-fifth use it in that way. It was notably lower in countries like Japan (5%), South Korea (6%), and Canada (8%).

“It’s clear from the results that people are using emoji like any other system of communication: meaning can be subtle, and they’re used differently in various settings,” says Dr. Hope Wilson, Learning and Curriculum Manager at Duolingo, in a statement. “But virtual communication — especially work-related conversations over messaging tools — means that people from various countries and cultures, with different emoji styles and expectations, need emoji to help convey subtle meanings in real-time, often high-stakes situations.”

“Emoji communication breakdown happens for the same reasons as all language breakdowns!”

Communication breakdown

With a plethora of potential meanings attached to emoji, some of which have multiple meanings depending on context — one might question whether emoji belong in the workplace, but the survey showed there’s still a wide range of benefits.

Fifty-eight percent of global employees surveyed think using emoji at work allows them to communicate more nuance with fewer words, and 55 percent say emoji use can speed up workplace communication.

Notably, this was higher in the U.S. — 69 percent of American respondents say using emoji allows them to communicate with more nuance, while 67 percent say it speeds up communication. Results also show that two in three global respondents feel closer and more bonded in a conversation when messaging someone who understands the emoji they’re using.

Globally, respondents are three times as likely to “always” use emoji when messaging their co-workers, compared to their boss (21% vs. 7%). Even then, some emoji are off-limits — the kiss mark (????) and the tongue (????) are the top two off-limit emoji to send a boss or co-worker.

The poop emoji (????) ranked third on a list of emoji to not send your boss, while the eggplant (????) took third for emoji not to send a co-worker.

“Emoji let people convey a broad range of emotions efficiently, and in a way that words sometimes can’t,” says Olivia Grace, Senior Director of Product Management at Slack. “As we continue to embrace hybrid work from digital HQs, emoji really help people to acknowledge one another, clarify intent and add a little color, depth and fun to work.”

“Plus, when widely accepted as part of the workplace language, they go a long way in increasing efficiency by replacing follow-up messages and reducing noise. A simple thumbs-up emoji to express approval, an ‘eyes’ emoji to say ‘I’ll take a look’, or a checkmark to say ‘this is done’ all add efficiency compared to back-and-forth messages.”

“We also see emoji used heavily to express care and support — sentiments that are sometimes hard to put into appropriate words at work. We saw a huge spike in use of the heart (❤️) and similar emoji when COVID-19 hit as Slack employees showed support, love and solidarity through difficult times.”

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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1 Comment

  1. BoB Roberts says:

    The world needs better use of words. Emojis are generally lazy communication.