Emojis worldwide: what are the different cultural meanings behind popular emojis

Emojis worldwide: what are the different cultural meanings behind popular emojis
After the first emoji was created in 1997 by designer Shigetaka Kurita (Japan), they quickly became an integral part of our online social lives. Securely nestled in the way we communicate with others, emojis are used in almost every part of the world today, no matter the language or region.

One might even dare go as far as to say that emojis are the universal language to unite all cultures. But of course, that would be an arguably naive way to look at these virtual icons that we use every day. There are two fundamental reasons stopping emojis from becoming a language, to begin with, let alone one that unifies us all under the same umbrella.

First and foremost, even though you can say a lot by using just emojis, they still lack the precise nature and meaning of actual written words. What’s more, despite there being almost 4,000 emojis in existence, that number gets toppled by the number of words even just the English language has, which is more than 171,000!

Are emojis important for our communication?

Despite their inability to replace every language on Earth, emojis are still an amazing modern tool for online communication. They allow the writer to express their true feelings and tone, without the need of being super savvy in the art of the pen — well, more like the art of the thumb in the 21st century — to do so.

There is also the fact that a sentence can often be misinterpreted if you don’t throw in an emoji or two for the other person to know what connotation you are trying to convey through your words. Sometimes, it can even feel weird and uncomfortable when the other person is not using these emoticons, as they are also called.

All of this is to say that, at least in my opinion, emojis are without a doubt a necessary part of talking to others online, be it in emails, chats, forums, comment sections, etc. Of course, it’s also weird if you start to overdo it and become “that” person from the group chat who spams emojis like there’s no tomorrow.

What many of us overlook, is that since emojis are still a form of expression — just like our language — their meaning and use vary depending on your culture and location. That’s exactly what brought me to the decision of researching this topic and taking a look at some of the most popular emojis that are used differently depending on where you are.

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If you, just like me, find this fascinating to dissect and unravel, join me on a cross-country journey through the world of emojis.

How different countries use emojis

Slightly Smiling Face

Let us start with the most classic of them all, the “Slightly Smiling Face” emoji. This is probably one of the most confusing and controversial emojis, specifically because of the duality that it carries.

Typically, in most western countries it is used as a sign of pleasantry, politeness, or even good intentions. That is, however, in contrast to the way it is interpreted in China, where it can be used as a way to express irony, strong annoyance, or contempt. It is worth mentioning, though, that this particular use of the “slightly smiling face” has started to trickle down in other countries in Europe as well.

Baby Angel

While the Baby Angel emoji is often used as a sign of innocence and purity in western cultures. Not in China, though… If someone sends you this seemingly harmless cupid-like emoticon, you are either being notified of someone's death, or straight up getting threatened.

Pile of Poo

This friendly poop emoji is often used in its literal meaning. It can be also used, though, as a way to express silliness or when you are joking with someone.

Japan has another positive connotation for this emoji, often sending it to others to wish them good luck. The Japanese language has a lot of words that sound the same but have different meanings depending on the context you use them. In this case, “un” sounds like the word for good luck, and is the first syllable of the word “unko” which is, you guessed it, poop.

Thumbs Up

Even before emojis became a thing, hand gestures and the meaning behind them varied a lot between different cultures. So, naturally, that carried over to the ones we see online.

The Thumbs Up emoji is generally accepted in many parts of the world as a sign of agreement, feeling good, or simply as a confirmation. However, you should definitely avoid pointing your thumb upwards if you are in the following countries: Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Greece, Sardinia (Italy), and Nigeria. It basically carries the same meaning as flipping the bird to someone.

Crossed Fingers

Crossed fingers are often used in the UK, US, and Canada as a way to show someone you wish them good luck with a particular endeavor. If you find yourself somewhere in Vietnam, then you might want to avoid this when you are encouraging someone, as it is associated with the female genitalia.

Clapping Hands

A hand gesture for applauding something or someone has existed since the days of the Roman empire — the action of clapping your hands. We often send this to our friends, and even sometimes to strangers, when we want to congratulate or encourage them. That said, the only message you would be sending with this emoji if you are in China is an invitation to the bedroom.

Sign of the Horns

Rock fans are more than familiar with the hand gesture imitating a devil’s horns. Online, the emoji version is often used to express excitement and hype. Things start to get a bit more naughty when you look at countries like Spain, Brazil, Cuba, and Uruguay where it is a sign of adultery.

Folded Hands

The Folded Hands emoji usually comes with some religious note to it in western countries like France, the UK, the US, or Canada. In Japan, on the other hand, it is simply a way of showing thanks or saying please.

OK Hand

This emoji (and the real-life gesture) is probably the one that carries the most variety of meanings itself. For example, in places like the US and the UK, as well as in the world of free and scuba diving, it means exactly what its name suggests — “OK” or “I am OK”.

However, in Japan, this emoji is used when talking about coins or wealth. In France and Tunisia, it means “0”; in Turkey, Germany, Greece, and the Middle East it is an insult (intercourse); while in Brazil it is used when you are extremely angry with somebody.

Will something replace emojis in the future?

Well, to be completely honest, we already have something that is pretty good — and sometimes even better — at conveying our specific feelings and emotions — GIFs!

Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that GIFs can function as a full-fledged replacement for emojis. They are larger, and not as applicable as the small emoticons are. Plus, there is something about the simplicity of an expressive little emoji that neatly packages your mood and the tone you want to give off that is simply irreplaceable.

Maybe one day when something comes along to replace all of the screens we stare at throughout our day, online communication can change so much that we no longer need such tiny pictures to express ourselves. But who knows? They just might come in another shape or form, instead of going completely obsolete or being replaced by something else.

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