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Emojis add meaning to texts and emails, but can increase risk of miscommunication

Set of Emoticons. Emoji flat design, avatar design. Vector illustration isolated on white background.

A hairless bat photo landed in Debra Johnson Robnik's text messages.

Her response: "I hope that's not your dinner." Insert barbecue grill emoji.

Like this exchange with a friend, the Duluth woman uses emojis to add humor and communicate feelings. "I'm a very creative person, and it's really hard to put down a sentence and not put what emotion is behind that," she said.

Emojis are graphics created by software developers and are accessible on many digital platforms. We use them because we want to connect and know what others are thinking through text or email, said Tara Richter, licensed clinical psychologist at St. Luke's.

Richter sees emojis in her work with children and teens because it's a common and concrete way for her clients to express and identify emotions.

"It's a social norm for them, so they're more comfortable using that terminology than talking about feelings."

What can attract the rest of us is our brains light up when we see emojis, Richter said. Opening a text with a face emoji affects the occipito temporal cortex — the same area affected when we see a smile in person. "It's the human empathy response," she said.

This neurological reaction is only reserved for facial graphics. "The notorious poop emoji doesn't light up that part in our brain."

'Open to interpretation'

Emojis aren't real emotions, said Monica Riordan, assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. They represent an idea of a feeling, object or concept.

"We're actually performing these emotions," she said by phone.

In person, we smile when we hear something funny, but we're rarely laughing with tears when that emoji is in play.

"The whole point in doing this self-presentation is to perform these social roles," she said. If Riordan doesn't think a joke her husband texts is funny, she still sends a laughing face as a way to support the relationship.

Emojis can also communicate personality.

Robnik's go-to's are the dog — for her Chihuahua-terrier mix — and the lion because she's a Leo. Close behind are the sunrise and smiley face emojis. She opts for the latter often because words can be lost in translation.

Think of a unicorn. It generally symbolizes rarity or magic. For Riordan and a friend, it means failure after an unsuccessful attempt at making a unicorn themed birthday cake.

"Every emoji is open to interpretation," she said.

Food emojis are tricky. A peach can represent a butt, and an eggplant typically refers to male genitalia, Riordan said.

"My mom texted me, 'What do you want for dinner?,' and there was an eggplant after it," she said. The meaning is different coming from her mother than it would be coming from her husband. When interpreting emojis, always consider the relationship, she said.

It's hard to avoid miscommunication on all stages. "We can't necessarily blame the emoji itself." It happens texting plain words or talking on the phone, and the cause is there are two people occupying different environments, Riordan said.

Robnik noted snafus sending and receiving emojis that were intended elsewhere. Save for that, they help clarify a message. Texts can sound threatening, if taken out of context, she said.

Avoid this by talking in person, recognizing when it causes a problem and considering the recipient. Also, avoid using emojis like hieroglyphics, which can complicate communication. "Emojis should be used as a complement to a text," Riordan said.

Playful language

Richter has clients who have entire conversations using only emojis. "It's the secret language of teens," she said. They want to communicate among their social groups and are continually looking at what defines them.

However they're used, emojis always soften a message — even when they're negative, according to Riordan's research.

She took responses from 1,500 participants ages 18-78, who negotiated meaning from a set of texts. Riordan looked at how well the reader understood the message's intent and how confident the reader felt about their ability to interpret it.

It was universal that messages with an emoji were perceived as positive, even when the words weren't positive. "If you use 'I needed that file yesterday' — and you send an angry face, it still softens the message," Riordan said.

The reason: "Emojis are inherently playful."

Studies are in works correlating personalities with emoji use. "People who use an anger emoji tend to be more angry and negative," Richter said, but add an emoji, and the message still appears more positive.

People who use emojis would say "hello" on the street, Robnik said, and it's a shared perception. Those who are open to sharing feelings in any form are likely to be more approachable, Richter said. Added Riordan: Those who use emojis appear to be happy.

While humans have gone hundreds of years without, emojis are helpful at disambiguating messages and helping readers understand sarcasm, irony and a sender's sincerity. "We are able to convey subtleties when using emojis," Riordan said, adding that there are many times emojis are unnecessary.

Richter said she avoids using them at the office, but she can see them becoming more prevalent in the workplace because they're so commonly used with a younger generation.

Emojis do offer a creative outlet, Robnik said, and they allow the sender to choose what's sent — be it an emotion or just love.

"I'm convinced that at some point, we'll be able to communicate entirely with emojis," said Richter, who was quick to add that emojis won't replace language entirely.

Riordan disagreed, adding that emojis lack syntax, grammar and established meanings.

One thing's for sure, people will continue to petition for new emojis that meet their needs, Richter said, noting an influx of new emojis representing people of different ethnicities.

These visual representations of life aren't going away, she said.

"You might as well learn the language."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346