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Do You Speak 😊? Relating And Communicating Through Emoji

Emojis have evolved to be used as tone indicators, emotions, even punctuation.
Emojis have evolved to be used as tone indicators, emotions, even punctuation.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Every day, through text, email or digital messages, we put this into practice by using emojis.

These graphical icons of anything from mailboxes to champagne glasses to winking faces are filled with meaning — and they help us convey feelings, tone, even punctuation.

Gender, age and culture can all play a role in which emoji best suits a conversation, and relationships between people influence how it gets interpreted in context. Host Anita Rao talks about how emojis get created with Charles Carson, the managing editor of Duke University Press’ linguistics journal, American Speech, and a member of the Unicode emoji subcommittee. Susan Herring, professor of information science and linguistics at Indiana University Bloomington, also joins to talk about the linguistic use of emoji.

Rao also gets hot takes on emoji usage from two teenagers: high school seniors Ellie Stevens and Amanda Tsuetaki, who are also a part of WUNC’s Youth Reporting Institute.

Interview Highlights

🦩 Carson on the criteria for approving new emoji:

One is that it's durable. We don't want some faddish symbols on our phones that, 10 years from now, we look at our phone and go: Why is that there? Some of the Japanese ones — that we call legacy because they were part of that emoji build up war when they were competing in the 90s — some of those legacy emoji you just look at and go: Why is there a camel with one hump and one with two humps? Why do we need both of those? But we kind of inherited those, we never would have approved two different camels. … We tend to shy away from emoji that are only used literally. For example, the animals that were just approved for 2020 — there was a skunk, there was a sloth, there was a flamingo — all of these have other connotations. And so they can be used in semantically creative ways.

🐭 Herring on how emoji use correlates to the intimacy level in a relationship:

When a graphicon is new, or relatively new, it tends to be used pretty much exclusively or definitely primarily with intimates: with significant others, with close friends, maybe with siblings, and less with other family members and people that you've just met, or people that you have any kind of professional relationship with. And we see this pattern repeated over and over with emoticons, and then with emoji, and then with stickers. And now we're seeing it with Animoji on the iPhone, and I think we're gonna see the same thing with Bitmoji as well. And so, not only do people use these graphicons with intimates — their use creates intimacy.

😄 Stevens on how emojis can put a conversation at ease:

Emojis can be a great tone indicator. In the pandemic, I feel like since we can't see each other face to face, it's been nice to be like, you can always tell what people mean from a text. So to just show a welcoming tone, a kind tone, just throw in some emojis. … It's a good mood-setter, I would say. So that's something that I try to do, like, do a laughing one or a heart one just to set a good tone.

🦖 Tsuetaki on using emoji with her family:

We use the thumbs up, which I think my dad must have coined, because only fathers would think that thumbs up was like, a great way to end conversations. If we're gonna do family dinner, my mom loves to do the emoji of the family and then the emoji of a chicken wing, which is like, so cute. And I love her for it. But it's definitely like, we probably seem crazy to other people, you know, trying to translate all of the stuff we send each other. Like, one more that we do is a walking man, and then it's a T. rex and a bear. So our dogs are named Rex and Bear. But it's definitely something that is very family specific, so most people wouldn't understand it. But I think that's kind of nice that it's special to my family.

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Kaia Findlay is the lead producer of Embodied, WUNC's weekly podcast and radio show about sex, relationships and health. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist, host, creator, and executive editor of "Embodied," a weekly radio show and podcast about sex, relationships & health.