How emojis are shaping the way we communicate

Hannah Gallop

Hannah Gallop


In today's digital age, how we communicate extends beyond words spoken or written expression. Emojis, the small pictorial icons that pepper our messages and social media posts, have become a significant part of our communication. 

From ☺️ to 💅🏻 to even 🍆, there's an emoji for every mood, and with a total of 3,664 emojis (as of July 2023) at your fingertips, there are plenty of ways to express yourself. 

In recent years, there has been a noticeable shift in the perception of emojis. From being once disregarded as mere frivolities, they are now recognised as a legitimate form of expression. This recognition was further emphasised by the selection of the "Face with Tears of Joy" (😂) emoji as the Oxford dictionary's "Word of the Year" for 2015. 

Undeniably, emojis have become an integral part of popular culture. Evidence of their widespread use can be seen in the fact that 92% of the online population incorporates them into their digital communications. This is further supported by the establishment of World Emoji Day, which is celebrated annually on July 17th.

This celebration emphasises the cultural significance and widespread recognition of emojis in our modern world. So, mark your calendars and get your 🥳 emoji out as we celebrate the impact of emojis on our society and how we communicate.

A brief history of emojis

Modern-day emojis can be traced back to the 1990s, during the early days of online chatrooms, where symbols were combined to create basic emoticons such as :) ;) or :p, for example.

But it wasn't long before the rise of mobile messaging led to a shift towards concise and telegraphic correspondence, as people had less space and time to convey their message, making it harder to convey tone and emotion.

As a result, the Japanese mobile phone company NTT DOCOMO released a set of 176 emoji for mobile phones and pagers in 1999, designed by Shigetaka Kurita.

Kurita took inspiration from Japanese graphic novels, the Zapf Dingbats typeface, illustrations, and pictograms to create the first emoji library. Kurita designed these on a twelve-by-twelve-pixel grid and included weather symbols, pictograms like the heart symbol, and a range of facial expressions.

With more than 3,000 emojis now available, they have evolved far beyond NTT DOCOMO's original set into an essential, global, and increasingly complex companion to written language. Still, the DNA for today's emoji is present in Kurita's humble pixelated designs.

Are emojis replacing language?

Critics often condemn emojis for allegedly degrading linguistic standards, but in reality, their widespread use signifies a new phase in the evolution of language.

Research has shown that people are adept at comprehending sentences that incorporate text and emojis, demonstrating cognitive flexibility in adapting to new communication methods.

When an emoji replaces a word in a sentence, it is effortlessly comprehended, indicating a high level of semantic understanding associated with these graphical symbols. 

Interestingly, emojis elicit brain patterns similar to those activated when processing sarcasm or encountering unexpected words. This suggests that emojis tap into the same cognitive mechanisms employed in linguistic comprehension despite their non-linguistic nature.

Nevertheless, emojis possess inherent limitations when used in isolation, such as a lack of complex grammatical structures in traditional languages. When strung together in a sequence resembling a sentence, they become more challenging to comprehend due to the absence of a systematic grammatical framework and linguistic nuances such as verb tense, prepositions, and pronouns, which are difficult to express through emojis alone.

While emojis cannot fully replace traditional languages, they can enhance text-based communication by serving functions akin to facial expressions and gestures in face-to-face conversations. 

Emojis act as visual cues that supplement written language, providing additional meaning and emotional expression. They capitalise on our natural ability to integrate different information streams, such as text, visual cues, and context, to construct a unified interpretation. Just as facial expressions and gestures are crucial in conveying meaning during in-person interactions, emojis play a similar role in digital conversations, enriching our digital communication landscape.

Understanding emojis and context

In many ways, emojis have become a visual language that adds depth and nuance to our digital conversations, allowing us to express our feelings, tone, and intentions to fill the gap left by the absence of body language in electronic communication, which helps to bring a human touch to an otherwise impersonal and abstract space.

One of the most significant impacts of emojis is their ability to add emotional context to text-based conversations. Written words can often be misinterpreted without visual cues like facial expressions and body language. 

However, the meanings of emojis are not always straightforward or universally understood. 

Emojis possess both a literal meaning and, over time, acquire secondary connotations that often overshadow the original interpretation. Take the peach emoji 🍑, for example. While its literal meaning refers to the fruit, its secondary meaning has transformed it into a representation of a derriere. Surprisingly, only a small percentage (7%) of users employ the peach emoji to depict the fruit itself.

Understanding the evolving meanings of emojis is crucial to avoid potential embarrassment or miscommunication. This inherent flexibility in meaning presents a real challenge, as emoji-focused messages can be understood differently by audiences unfamiliar with the intended purpose, tone, or intention.

Can you be liable for the emojis you use?

The widespread use of emojis in digital communication has made them commonplace for many, with thumbs-up or heart emojis used without much thought. However, these seemingly harmless pictograms can unexpectedly lead to liability, such as being interpreted as a criminal threat or even forming a legally binding contract.

In 2019, the number of reported cases involving emojis or emoticons as evidence increased by more than 50 per cent.

A notable illustration of this was a recent Canadian court ruling that recognised the thumbs-up emoji as a valid form of contract assent, shedding light on the growing role of emojis in legal proceedings.

The legal battle began after grain buyer Kent Mickleborough messaged farmer Chris Achter to purchase flax at a specified price. After Mickleborough sent a contract to Achter, asking him to confirm the agreement, Achter replied with a thumbs-up emoji. Mickleborough interpreted it as acceptance of the contract, but Achter argued that it only indicated receipt of the message. The dispute arose over the meaning of the emoji.

Justice Timothy Keene, presiding over the case, recognised the non-traditional use of an emoji as a signature. However, he concluded that it met the criteria for confirmation and acceptance purposes and emphasised the need for courts to adapt to evolving forms of communication and the use of emoji in regular life. The judge wants courts to consider emojis as part of the new reality in Canadian society.

Context remains crucial, as always. Courts have a history of handling non-verbal and non-written forms of communication; in some ways, emojis are no different. However, the diverse intentions behind emoji usage across regions, groups, and individuals make their interpretation subjective and challenging. 

As a rule of 👍, exercising caution when using emojis in a contractual context is wise.

The future of communication and emojis

❤️ it or 👎 it, emojis have become integral to modern communication and are incredibly useful in conveying the intended tone of a message. 

Still, they can never replace the power of written words. While emojis can add a layer of emotion to a text or email, they cannot convey the depth of meaning that well-crafted written language can achieve. Written words have the power to move, persuade, and inspire in ways that emojis never could.

Whether you need help finding the right words (or emojis) to tell your brand story, our creative communications team is here to help.

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