“As online socializing has become more common, people have become accustomed to embellishing their expressions and checking the appropriateness of their communications,” said Moyu Liu of the University of Tokyo.
. “But I realized that it can cause us to lose touch with our original emotions.”
Liu recruited 1,289 participants, all users of the most downloaded emoji keyboard in Japan, Simeji, to investigate how emojis are used to express or mask emotions. Previous research has found that people use emojis as the functional equivalent of facial expressions, but not the relationship between expressed and experienced emotions. This is when display rules can become problematic: if the dissonance between the emotions you experience and the emotions you are able to express is too great, emotional exhaustion can develop, even though people from different cultures experience it differently.
Display rules have a greater impact on negative emotions, which are usually considered less appropriate to express. It’s also often more acceptable to express emotions to someone closer to you, and it may be more acceptable for a certain gender to express specific emotions. In more individualistic societies, the expression of negative emotions may be considered more acceptable.
Put Your Heart On Your Screen
Participants in Liu’s study provided demographic information, answered questions about their subjective well-being, and rated how often they used emojis. They were given messages with different social contexts, responded to them normally, and rated the intensity of their emotional expression.
Liu found that people choose to express more emotions with emojis in private contexts or with close friends. Respondents expressed the least emotion toward higher status individuals. Unless people felt the need to mask their true emotions, intense expressions of emotion came with appropriate emojis: for example, using smiley emojis to mask negative emotions. Negative emojis were only used where negative feelings were felt very strongly. Expressing emotions with emojis was associated with higher subjective well-being than masking emotions.
“With online socializing becoming more and more common, it’s important to consider whether it’s causing us to become more disconnected from our real emotions,” Liu said. “Do people need a ‘sanctuary’ to express their true feelings, and is it possible to get rid of the excuses and share our true selves online?”
Liu emphasized that the research should be expanded in the future. The Simeji keyboard is quite popular among young women, which makes the pattern more focused on women and Generation Z. However, this reflected a gender imbalance in the use of emojis in general and the Simeji keyboard in particular. A wider pool of participants will provide a more complete picture of the display rules around emojis.
“First, a sample of high gender imbalance may lead to stronger results. Future research should investigate potential gender differences in emoji display rules and examine structural issues related to the formation of these emotion cultures,” cautioned Liu. “Second, Japanese culture’s emphasis on interpersonal harmony and concealment of negative emotions may have influenced the results.”
“I welcome the opportunity to expand this research and explore emoji display patterns across different genders and cultures,” added Liu. “Collaboration with scientists from different cultures would be invaluable in this work, and I am open to any contact.”