Do emoji reflect our emotions, or are we just putting on a brave face?

As if human communications weren’t complicated enough. Researchers are saying people also use emoji to reflect or mask their internal emotional state, depending on the context and accepted social rules 😕.

As we all know, in face-to-face communication, a person may choose to “mask” their true internal feelings in certain situations, like receiving an unwanted gift. They might smile, or display positive facial expressions, contradicting their true feelings. And such displays are often governed by expected social norms and differ according to culture 😶‍🌫️

Moyu Liu from the University of Tokyo was curious about whether emoji used in online communications – on social media, texting or email – work the same way 🤔.

Just like facial expressions, emoji can represent or mask emotions, Liu’s study found.  However negative emoji are more likely to represent a persons true feelings.

Liu says “with online socializing becoming ever more prevalent, it is important to consider whether it is causing us to become more detached from our true emotions.” 

“Do people require a ‘shelter’ to express their genuine emotions, and is it possible to break free from pretence and share our true selves in online settings?”

More than 1,200 Japanese participants were recruited for the study, aged 10 – 29 years, and all users of a popular downloaded emoji keyboard⌨️ in Japan called Simeji.

Particpants were asked to respond as they normally would to a set of private and public messages, while also rating the intensity of their emotions.

The study shows people use emoji in a similar way to facial expressions.

Positive faces 🤗😃😊 were used in both positive contexts, and negative contexts where the user wanted to cover their true emotional state.

However, negative emoji strongly reflected intense negative emotions 😡😤.

People were more likely to truly express their emotions using emoji in private, rather than public communication.

And they were more likely to use masking emoji – not matching their emotions – when dealing with high status individuals. And in general, were less likely to use emoji in these contexts 🤐.

Liu emphasized that the study should be expanded in the future to include a broader span of demographics and consider different cultural contexts. The Simeji keyboard is extremely popular among young women, which skewed the sample towards women and younger participants.

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