The meaning of what you write is subject to the interpretation of the people who read it. You might have one tone or intent, but filtered through their mood and assumptions, they could take it quite differently. That's what makes emoji so powerful.
Sure, emoji are little images of people laughing or crying, of animals or plants, of food or vehicles, of activities or things, of places or flags — so many flags! — but they're also an important form of communication.
Emoticons started off when people began using combinations of punctuation and brackets in the desperate attempt to inject some humanity into cold, computer messages. Smiley :), frowny, :(, winky ;), and others, let us include not just what we were saying, but how we meant to say it.
Japan took it a step further and codified them into a series of images intended for digital communication. Now, they're everywhere, overseen by UNICODE and implemented by every major platform.
As much as some people might find them silly or even off-putting, emoji have become a tool for preventing misinterpretation and misunderstandings. They've become critical to how we express ourselves and relate to each other.
It's human nature to pay attention to faces more than anything else. That's why facial expressions are so informative. Our brains react differently when we seem them. The Fusiform area fires strongly when we see emotions. Facial recognition is so important to emotional interpretation that anthropological research has demonstrated 6 cross-cultural, universal facial expressions which correspond to universal emotions: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, disgust, and anger.
When we talk, between 55 and 70 percent of our communication is non-verbal, depending on the variables being studied. Since written words lack the non-verbal part, we end up losing a lot of the intonation and meaning behind the words.
I'm sure everybody has experienced the feeling of an email or text message that's been misinterpreted, both sending and receiving. (It's incredibly common, and the main reason you should never have an important conversation through text or email.)
That's where emoji come in. They bridge the information gap, at least a little. They add emotion to what would otherwise be sterile text, and because emotion is cross-cultural, they can even transcend language and region. They let you project feeling, intention, and sentiment, and add vital context to your messages.
They can also reduce stress and anxiety by letting you say with pictures what might be difficult or problematic to express with words.
Worried something you mean as a joke will be taken seriously? Concerned a cute remark will be taken as flippant or glib? Nervous about a suggestion or uncertain about a reply? Want to make sure your caring comes through clearly? There are emoji for all of that and more.
Because emoji are pictographic and can express a complete thought or feeling in a single image, they're also incredibly efficient. You can include them in any message, even a character-limited Tweet, and you can send them with only a few quick keystrokes when you need to.
Depending on where you work, you may or may not be able to get away with emoji in your professional communications. How you use them personally, though, is entirely up to you.
If you've been frowny face about emoji so far, I urge you to try on a smiley. They may be intentionally silly at times, but they're never frivolous. They won't replace words and sentences completely, but they will continue to add nuance and context to them.
Emoji are a secondary layer on top of your messages, one that lets you make sure what you write has a better chance of being read as you intended it.
It's why Apple greatly expanded emoji support in iOS 10 — 3x emoji, emojification, emoji suggestions, Tapbacks, bubble and screen effects, and more.
And it's why, the next time you see an emoji in your inbox, don't sigh or roll your eyes. Send one back!