A colorful illustration of a woman looking down at her phone. She has an angry expression and is surrounded by question marks while looking at emojis.
Design by Grace Filbin.

From my best friend’s consistent use of the fire emoji on my Instagram posts, to my mom’s reply of the spaghetti emoji when I ask what’s for dinner, to the inclusion of a smiley face in my ECON 101 professor’s Canvas updates, everyone has a seemingly unique perception and use of emojis. Some people add a heart at the end of a message to show a little extra love, while others see a red heart and assume it’s being used passive-aggressively. Similarly, the laughing-crying emoji has been at the forefront of debate among emoji users, and is one that I have strong opinions on. If that’s your response to a funny TikTok I send, I will make a fair judgment on your personality. 

There was a time when I used to consider emojis to be a communication crutch and, as a result, I completely refrained from using them. However, after repeatedly offending people I care about inadvertently through short text responses, I am now bound by the social constructs of emojis to include either a smiley, winky or kissy face at the end of every text.

Coming from a person who now rarely goes two sentences without an emoji, I appreciate the added thought that goes into selecting the right emoji for each occasion. I’m petrified that the texts I send to my friends might come across in a different tone than I intended. If I put only a period at the end of a sentence, it might sound like I’m annoyed or upset. If I add a smiling emoji or disco ball, suddenly I’m stoked. As a writer, I probably shouldn’t give emojis the power to completely change the meaning of a sentence. As a texter, though, I have had far too many short responses interpreted incorrectly. 

I consider myself quite expressive; I talk with wavering hand movements, use facial expressions and constantly vary my intonation depending on the subject. These features of communication play a critical role in conveying my message in a select tone and attitude. Texting, on the other hand, is toneless. Unless utilizing other features of written communication like exclamation marks and capitalization, messages across a screen often fall flat of emotion. Emojis say a lot about how we communicate as they take the place of nonverbal cues lost in digital translation. They have become a crucial component of online communication; to dismiss their significance is to dismiss how language currently functions and the manner in which so much of modern communication is conducted. 

Using emojis allows for control of the emotional tone of digital conversations. A 2016 study found that emojis are most commonly used to create a more positive mood. A couple of days ago, a friend was telling me how she was nervous to send some disappointing news to a student organization group chat with more than 150 members. Hoping her message would come across friendly, she used two pink hearts to lighten the mood.

On the flip side, emojis can also be considered unprofessional. The process of whether or not to include an emoji seems surface-level, but it’s a test nonetheless and conveys a certain tone and level of professionalism. It shouldn’t be a surprise that women, on average, use double the number of emojis as men. Women, in professional and personal settings, often feel pressured to come across as kind in digital communication.

A similar 2006 study found that women more frequently use exclamation marks in emails in comparison to men, stating they function as “markers of friendly interaction.” Feminine writing typically aims toward exercising caution out of fear of being perceived as too blunt. Another friend of mine was concerned with coming across too harshly over text; her deliberate inclusion of an emoji allowed her peace of mind, as the addition of a cute yellow head effectively lightened the tone. Men, conversely, don’t share the same societal pressure to convey a kinder tone and express emotion, whether it be through emojis or punctuation. Gender norms don’t disappear through the screen — they’re embedded in society and are evident in how digital communication is conducted.

So how can we use emojis to judge people’s characters?

If a man uses an emoji, I must admit it’s an automatic green flag toward who they are. I’m way more inclined to like a fellow emoji user — using emojis indicates an expressive personality and a deliberate effort made. The decision to accompany words with visual cues indicates a more engaged sender, one who specifically wants their words to be accurately interpreted and one who cares enough to punctuate with a heart or expressive little yellow face.

To a certain extent, emojis function like accessories. The addition of a little star or hand emoji can transform a basic Instagram caption into something fun and expressive. But, like accessories, emoji preferences are made based on personal style and character choices. I’m more inclined to connect with someone even by just sharing the same favorite emojis because it’s reasonable to assume we share other interests, personality traits or senses of humor.

So next time you think of sending someone an emoji, choose wisely. It may very well tell them a lot about yourself. 

Kate Micallef is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at katemic@umich.edu.