Gender, culture and age all appear to play a role in how emojis are interpreted, according to a study published in the Open Access Journal on February 14, 2024. Plus one By Yihua Chen, Xingchen Yang and colleagues at the University of Nottingham, UK.

Stylized images of faces expressing different emotions, emojis can add emotional significance as well as potential ambiguity to electronic messages.

To understand how gender, age, and culture may influence emoji interpretation, Chen, Yang, and colleagues surveyed 253 Chinese and 270 UK adults (51 percent female and 49 percent male, aged 18 to 84 years old) recruited a group of 24 different emojis were chosen by the authors to represent six basic emotional states: happy, disgusted, scared, sad, surprised and angry. (Each of the six studied emojis was represented four times using emojis from the Apple, Windows, Android, and WeChat platforms, all slightly different from each other.)

The researchers assessed how often participants’ interpretations of the emojis’ meanings matched the emotional labels assigned by the study’s authors. They found that the older the participant, the less their interpretations matched the labels of surprised, scared, sad, and angry emojis. Women’s interpretations of happy, scary, sad, and angry emojis were more similar to labels than men’s. UK participants’ interpretations were more likely than Chinese participants’ to match the labels assigned to all but the disliked emoji.

Since only six basic emoji types were used, they may not exactly correspond to emojis as used in real life with access to all possible emoji types. (For example, the emoji chosen to represent “disgusted” in this study is classified as “surprised face” on Unicode.org, which likely explains (Why all participants had difficulty classifying this face.)

The results highlight the importance of context when using emojis — for example, the likelihood that a “smiley” emoji is classified as “happy” in this study, especially Not always used to denote happiness for Chinese participants. Additionally, some demographic differences were partially mediated by participants’ familiarity with a particular emoji. Future studies should examine individual differences in the interpretation of a wide selection of frequently used emoji both in and out of context. The authors note that the ambiguity of emojis is a topic worthy of further research, especially when communicating across gender, age, or cultures.