The human skull has 14 facial bones and 35 muscles wrapping around these bones. That anatomy works together to form everything from grimaces, to grins, to mouths agape. Beyond the face, there are all kinds of cues that you can use to understand someone: voice contours, body language, and eye contact, to name a few.
All this context disappears when we switch to text. Emojis and emoticons help fill in the gap. They let us express a stance; for instance, “Ok” can connote “I’m a little bothered,” but “Ok :)” means the situation really is okay. As a special bonus, in addition to some 130 available facial expressions, emojis let us style ourselves into sleepy pandas, sparkle tigers, and thousands of otherwise-impossible contortions.
While plasticity is part of what makes emojis fun to use, it’s also what can make them complex to understand. But, as more communication migrates to digital avenues—think about how often you text versus how often you make a phone call—deciphering our 21st-century shorthand is becoming essential.
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