Emoji can facilitate recognition of conveyed indirect meaning

PLoS One. 2020 Apr 30;15(4):e0232361. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232361. eCollection 2020.


In face-to-face communication there are multiple paralinguistic and gestural features that facilitate recognition of a speaker's intended meaning, features that are lacking when people communicate digitally (e.g., texting). As a result, substitutes have emerged (expressive punctuation, capitalization, etc.) to facilitate communication in these situations. However, little is known about the comprehension processes involved in digital communication. In this research we examined the role of emoji in the comprehension of face-threatening, indirect replies. Participants in two experiments read question-reply sequences and then judged the accuracy of interpretations of the replies. On critical trials the reply violated the relation maxim and conveyed a negative, face-threatening response. On one-third of the trials the reply contained only text, on one-third of the trials the reply contained text and an emoji, and on one-third of the trials the reply contained only an emoji. When the question requested potentially negative information about one of the interactants (disclosures and opinions), participants were more likely to endorse the indirect meaning of the reply, and did so faster, when the reply contained an emoji than when it did not. This effect did not occur when the question was a request for action, a more conventional type of indirect reply. Overall, then, this research demonstrates that emoji can sometimes facilitate the comprehension of meaning. Future research is needed to examine the boundary conditions for this effect.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension
  • Emotions*
  • Facial Recognition*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Nonverbal Communication / psychology*
  • Social Media*
  • Young Adult

Grant support

The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation (BCS-1917631) which was awarded to TH. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.