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Sending the right message? Emojis can mean different things in different cultures

A recent study from the University of Nottingham sheds light on the complexity of emoji interpretation, revealing that factors such as gender, culture, and age significantly influence how these symbols are understood.

Emojis – digital images that are used to express ideas or emotions – have become an integral part of our online interactions. These icons offer a way to convey feelings and reactions in a visual form, bridging the gap between text-based communication and face-to-face conversation. 

Focus of the study 

The research team set out to explore how different demographic groups interpret emojis. The study was focused on 24 emojis selected to represent six basic emotional states: happiness, disgust, fear, sadness, surprise, and anger. 

These emojis were chosen from four major platforms: Apple, Windows, Android, and WeChat, highlighting slight variations in design that could affect interpretation. 

The researchers recruited a diverse group of 523 participants from China and the UK, with an almost even distribution of genders and an age range spanning from 18 to 84 years.

Key findings

The study revealed that older participants were less likely to match the researchers’ assigned emotional labels for emojis expressing surprise, fear, sadness, and anger. 

Generational gap 

The research suggests that there is a generational gap in emoji literacy, with younger users potentially having a more nuanced understanding of these symbols. 


Gender also played a role, with women’s interpretations of emojis for happiness, fear, sadness, and anger more frequently aligning with the labels assigned by the study authors compared to men’s interpretations. This could indicate that women are more attuned to the emotional nuances conveyed by emojis.

Cultural differences 

Cultural differences also emerged as a significant factor in emoji interpretation. UK participants were generally more likely than their Chinese counterparts to match the researchers’ labels for the emojis, with the exception of the one meant to convey disgust. This particular emoji, classified as “confounded face” on, highlights the challenges in selecting emojis that universally represent specific emotions. 

The difficulty in classifying this emoji across both participant groups underscores the potential for misunderstanding when emojis are used in cross-cultural communication.

The importance of context 

The study’s findings emphasize the importance of context in emoji use. For example, the “smile” emoji, categorized as representing happiness in the study, may not universally signify joy, especially among Chinese participants. 

This variation underscores the potential for emojis to convey different meanings in different cultural contexts, leading to misinterpretations in cross-cultural communications.

Personal experience with emojis 

The researchers also noted that some of the demographic differences in emoji interpretation could be partially explained by participants’ familiarity with specific emojis. 

This observation suggests that personal experience with emojis plays a role in how they are understood, pointing to the need for further research into how individuals interpret a broader range of emojis in various contexts.

A layer of ambiguity 

Ultimately, the research highlights the complex interplay between gender, culture, and age in emoji interpretation. 

The study reveals that while emojis offer a powerful tool for adding emotional depth to digital communication, they also introduce a layer of ambiguity. This vagueness can lead to misunderstandings, especially in messages exchanged across cultural, generational, and gender divides. 

The research underscores the need for greater awareness of these factors when using emojis and suggests avenues for future studies to explore the nuances of emoji interpretation further. 

Broader implications

As our digital communication landscapes continue to evolve, understanding the subtleties of emoji use will become increasingly important in facilitating clear and empathetic interactions online.

“The current results have important implications when considering emoji use in online communication, for example, with conversation partners from different cultures or of different ages,” concluded the study authors. 

“Given the broad and expanding use of emoji in other domains, the findings of individual differences in their interpretation also has more wide-reaching implications – for instance, in improving classification accuracy in sentiment analysis, and regarding digital advertising within marketing, multinational corporations may need to apply different emoji for marketing purposes in different nations.”

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE

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