All Smilies: Are Emoji Meanings Changing How We Date?

woman smiling sending emojis

Are emojis revolutionising the way we communicate? If so, how do they feed in to online dating? Can emoji meanings truly convey the gravitas of an emotion like love? These are some of the burning questions we put to visual language doyen Neil Cohn in an attempt to shed some light on this modern phenomenon.

Emoji meanings – a 21st century lingua franca?

When Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita sketched out the first ever batch of 176 emojis in 1999, he could hardly have imagined the current landscape. Today we have in the region of 1,800 of the little icons to choose from at our fingertips1. According to figures released last year, a mammoth 92 percent of people online use emojis, a third of whom are doing so on a daily basis2.

In the press there have been a slew of news pieces of late touting emojis as part of a nascent language that’s destined to reformat the way we converse. Some sources even go as far to suggest that emoji will soon vie with English in terms of universality.

You can’t really be blamed for buying into the hype. As well as the handful of online emoji lexicons that have emerged over the last few years, Oxford Dictionaries even climbed aboard the pictographic bandwagon when they declared the ‘crying with laughter’ emoji their 2015 ‘word’ of the year, a move that left a fair few commentators shedding tears of anguish instead of joy3.

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But all this brouhaha begs the question; are emojis actually poised to become a lingua franca, or are they just a load of hot air? One expert with the answers is Neil Cohn, an American linguist based at Tilburg University in The Netherlands. Before Cohn entered academia he worked as a comic artist, a pursuit he took up in his teens. This background, coupled with studying cognitive science and linguistics, led him to his current research on visual languages.

As well as analysing how comic strips function linguistically, Cohn publically entered into the emoji debate with a BBC future’s article in 20154. Unlike emojis’ proponents, his opinion is a little less propitious. “I don’t believe that emoji are a visual language,” says Cohn frankly, “I think the people who are saying that have no idea what they are talking about in terms of language!”

Cohn says there are “essentially three magic ingredients that make something a full language”. This golden triangle is composed of modality, meaning and grammar. In simple terms modalities are the means by which we communicate; speaking is a verbal modality, when we gesticulate it’s a bodily modality.

Cohn goes on to explain that “modality is tied to meaning. The sounds I’m making are understandable to you because they have links to meanings that are understood by both of us”. The third crucial caveat is grammar. “Grammar essentially packages meaning across a sequence of units so that I create coherent sentences, and avoid ones that aren’t,” he says.

So how do emojis match up here, do they satisfy any of Cohn’s key conditions? “In the case of emoji, they have a modality, they’re graphic and visual,” he says, “they also convey some sort of meaning, the vocabulary is provided for you by the various companies that create them.”

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Everything comes unstuck when it comes to grammar. Cohn’s quite adamant about this aspect and suggests that emojis aren’t subject to the same rules when we construct a sentence. “I don’t believe Emoji have a grammar that guides how they’re ordered,” he says, “I wouldn’t call them a full language because they lack that grammatical property.”

When asked whether emojis may one day cease to be a collection of arbitrary symbols and develop their own unique grammar, he’s not convinced: “If emoji were to develop a grammar, it would require for them to be internally more complex. Used the way they are, emoji are a supplement to text. People use them in the same way that in speech I gesture, as an enhancement to the verbal modality.”

Speaking in thumbs; emojis and online dating

Now that the mechanics have been discussed, what impact are emojis having on the way we date? Granted, we might not be ditching text messages for endless strings of pictorial phrases any time soon. But we’re certainly using emoji meanings to convey the way we feel about things, and people.

Building on Cohn’s evaluation of emojis supplementary value, it’s pretty clear that they can be used in a light-hearted manner. Adding an emoji onto the end of a written message can definitely serve as a playful icebreaker, especially when you’re just starting to get to know someone. And Cohn agrees. “They definitely work in the dating context, their novelty certainly makes them good for that purpose,” he says.

Nevertheless, all those thumbs up and fist bumps aren’t as harmless as they may seem. In fact, there’s a massive potential for some pretty awkward hiccups inherent in emoji meanings. Last spring researchers at the University of Minnesota’s GroupLens Lab ran an experiment into the potential for miscommunication when using emoji5. Not only did the study find that understandings of emoji meanings vary depending on what platform you’re using, it also revealed that people regularly interpret the same emoji quite differently.

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This minefield of misunderstanding is something Cohn is quite aware of. “Using emojis like winky faces or heart eyes can really disambiguate the difference between saying something in seriousness and saying something in jest,” he says, “if you use the same emoji in two different ways and it could have completely different meanings depending on the context. If the person you’re sending them to doesn’t know you use the winky face in a particular way, they could think you’re being rude instead of being jokey or flirty!”

The underlying message then is to exercise a bit of caution when you’re pinging emojis off left, right and centre. That said there are certain emojis that have pretty blatant meanings attached to them… eggplants and peaches spring to mind. Cohn agrees that these kinds of emoji are risky, though he offers up a witty suggestion. “Those sort of euphemistic emojis might be one way in which you can flirt a little more acceptably than saying overly euphemistic things that might be offensive, though I don’t know if I’d like to try it,” he says, laughing.

Beyond the mix-ups and lewd symbolisms, the most intriguing thought is whether emoji meanings can ever be capable of conveying the weightiness of an emotion like love. Will these little icons one day prompt the same overwhelming and butterfly-inducing reaction saying ‘I love you’ manages?

If you side with Cohn’s reasoning, then probably not. “I don’t know if they can convey the magnitude of it unless we have more time. Saying ‘I love you’ to somebody is such a culturally loaded term that’s been ascribed so much value that I think emojis won’t be able to do that, unless they also achieve that sort of cultural worth.”

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Ruminating over the prospect that the future may see us professing our emotions graphically is a bizarre concept to take in, albeit a farfetched one. Nevertheless, Cohn entertains the idea for a moment. “If you only use the heart emoji alone, and it’s built up over time so that everybody knows that there’s a special use for that, then you might be able to achieve it.”

Perhaps emoji meanings are destined to stay rooted in the realm of triviality. That doesn’t mean that their use is entirely moribund, far from it. “Emoji might actually be a softer version of saying ‘I love you,” Cohn says, “let’s say you’re starting a relationship, you might not be comfortable enough to say those three heavy weighted words to somebody, but you might feel OK giving a kissy face to somebody.”

So there you have it. Emoji meanings are complex and wracked with misinterpretation. Yet they still serve a useful purpose, particularly when it comes to online dating. After a very detailed conversation, there’s just one final question left to ask Cohn. Does he use emojis? “Oh yes, of course,” he says, “all over the place!”

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