Emojis: Lost in Translation

Do you use emojis? Most people do now days. The right emoji can seem to hit the spot, rounding out the words and reinforcing the message with an appropriate ‘feeling’ image. Or, at times words are skipped altogether in favor of the cute cartoons. So fun and interesting, emojis seem to send a very clear message. Right?

Maybe not. If you feel proficient in using emojis, be aware that they may carry different meanings in different cultures. It is probably safe to assume that friends from your own culture will understand your meaning when you use emojis. However, using emojis cross-culturally can be tricky: a person’s cultural background influences their interpretation of the endless selection of emojis that exists. Researcher Boting Gao at the University of Toronto, demonstrated this in a recent study. Here is an excerpt from an article that discusses her research:

“Communication using emojis or emoticons may be considered more effective than using words alone because they deliver emotions in a more visually direct manner,” says Gao. “However, emojis are not usually labelled with a fixed meaning and are subject to interpretation, which can vary depending on a person’s cultural background.”

Gao was able to recruit participants for her online study from around the world and, based on geographic location, categorized them as being from a Western or Eastern culture. Participants were asked to rate their perceptions of nine different emojis that presented a range of emotions through the eyes and mouth. The results supported the team’s predictions of significant cultural differences in perceived emotions. With at least six of the emojis, Westerners relied mostly on the mouth for rating emotion while Easterners based their assessment on the eyes.

Read the complete article here.


The article makes clear that cultural background impacts how people interpret emojis. Unfortunately, the article does not explain why this is the case. What causes Westerners to rely “mostly on the mouth for rating emotion” and Easterners to base “their assessment on the eyes?” I did some digging to better understand this phenomenon, and found that it has been well-researched (see the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology).

The answer has to do with the differences between Affective and Neutral cultures. In short, Affective cultures are emotionally expressive, while Neutral cultures are emotionally reserved. (See “When its Cool to be Emotional”).


People from Western cultures generally tend to fit more toward the Affective end of the spectrum. In Affective cultures, a person uses their entire face to express emotion. However, they primarily use their mouth, the easiest part of the face to control. Thus, people from Affective cultures are accustomed to reading the whole face when attempting to understand each other, but then focus on the mouth for better understanding. Easterners, on the other hand, tend toward the Neutral end of the spectrum (less expressive). They subconsciously focus on the eyes because the eyes are more difficult to control than the mouth. In Neutral cultures, the eyes speak volumes.

The “Affective Challenge”

Reading facial expressions when mouths are masked is challenging for us who live in Affective cultures (I touched on this in Masked Communication). Could this be one of the reasons why people in Asia seem to have effortlessly adjusted to wearing masks in daily life, while we in the West struggle to even get through a trip to the grocery store while wearing a mask? It seems, in this era of mask-wearing, that people from Neutral cultures who are good at reading the eyes hold a distinct advantage over those of us from Affective cultures who rely primarily on the mouth to interpret emotion.

It is clear that we all need to work on our ability to “smize.” A smize is a smile with the eyes. (Google it). In this brave new world of mask-wearing, smizing may become the best means of positive communication between people from all cultures.

Keep Smizing!

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