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That emoji may not mean what you think it means

Sometimes an eggplant really is just an eggplant

A survey from Slack and Duolingo has confirmed that the witty emoji you like to drop into your messages could mean something entirely different to the recipient.

Emoji have their roots in the text-based emoticons used to express emotion without having to waste valuable bandwidth on fripperies such as emotion. A sequence of characters could once do the job – a colon, a minus sign and a parenthesis together and hey presto, approval (or the opposite) in only three characters.

The IT industry being what it is, those emoticons evolved into emoji thanks to the possibilities afforded by the Unicode standard (there are 3,633 emoji in the standard at time of writing). The pictograms turned up on Apple and Google platforms in their first decade, and it seems rarely a release from the Windows Insider program goes by without some sort of trumpeting regarding the operating system's emoji support.

However, while emoji can serve as handy shorthand, for some they can be baffling, annoying and occasionally downright offensive.

In China, for example, more than half of recipients think an eggplant is an eggplant. For many others, it means … something entirely different.

The survey questioned 9,400 hybrid workers spread evenly over countries including the US, the UK, India, Japan and China, and has thrown up some intriguing discrepancies in how emoji use has evolved over the years – despite many workers finding the characters essential when banging out a quick message.

As one would expect, there are substantial differences between messaging friends and family (almost three quarters of respondents like to stick a smiley or similar in a message for the former) and using emoji at work (just over half of workers use the characters with colleagues, but 30 percent never do with their boss).

Being a messaging platform, Slack is obviously keen on chatty workers, remarking they "think emoji can go a long way on the empathy meter" while highlighting the use of emoji to express care to colleagues. Maybe it's an age thing, but we'd argue a written message or possibly a chat might go a bit further than a trite picture of a broken heart.

Unsurprisingly, the kiss, tongue and other more scatological imagery are big no-nos for the workplace and we were heartened to learn that more than half of respondents said that a specific emoji wouldn't be used unless the recipient had used it first.

Globally, the money-with-wings emoji caused confusion (some thought it meant cash outgoing while others reckoned revenue was coming in) while respondents were split on the face-throwing-a-kiss pictogram – romantic or platonic? Safest bet is probably don't use it.

Surprisingly, even the slightly-smiling-face emoji caused consternation. While most people tended to use it as an indication of happiness, 14 percent picked it as something to show exasperation or distrust (higher in the US, where a full fifth reckoned it meant deep exasperation).

For the UK, there was almost a fifty-fifty split on what the skull emoji means. Some thought it was "I'm dead – that's funny" while others reckoned it literally meant death. Similarly, a pair of eyeballs could mean "I see you" or "I want the gossip" in the UK while only two percent of US users used it for the latter purpose.

Younger generations overall were more likely to say the recipient misunderstood an emoji. 58 percent of respondents confirmed this, saying that they were aware that a pictogram might occasionally not mean what they thought it meant.

Emoji are very much here to stay, particularly with the onward march of messaging platforms. As the survey shows, however, there might be all manner of misunderstandings when using them, both cross-country and cross-generation.

Sometimes a picture can tell a thousand words. Just not always the right ones. ®

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