These days there are more than 3,000 available emojis, from sloths to dumplings to yogis, to help us express every nuance, emotion, and joke that occurs to us over text. Which of this bounty of possibilities does the world use most?
Unicode Consortium, the organization that creates emojis, offered an official answer recently. Drumroll please… it’s the ‘crying from laughter’ emoji with the simple red heart not all that far behind and the face with heart eyes coming in third.
While fans of the sunglasses smiley or the swirl of poop might be disappointed that their favorite emoji didn’t top the list, the rankings aren’t just amusing trivia for emoji lovers. According to experts, the popularity of the hilarious tears emoji actually says something important about the challenges of how we communicate these days and the creative ways people are coming up with to get around those obstacles.
The inherent chilliness of text
Texting and email have definitely made communication more convenient. But what we’ve gained in ease thanks to these text-based methods, we’ve lost in subtly. In the good old days of phone calls, you interpreted your conversation partner’s meaning not just from their words, but from their tone. It was instantly apparent whether they were speaking sincerely or sarcastically when they told you, “That meeting was awesome!”
Text alone offers few ways to convey that distinction. It also lacks warmth, so that everyday interactions that would sound perfectly friendly when spoken aloud can come across as abrupt or even rude when converted into typed words.
Which is why you are probably seeing an increasing number of exclamation points in your inboxes these days. People started using them more to add emotion to text, but like a drug, each exclamation point is offering less of a hit of emotion over time. Which means it takes more and more punctuation to convey the same feeling. This phenomenon is called “punctuation inflation” and it’s the reason one exclamation point, which used to convey manic joy, now appears sort of underwhelmed.
“All of these quirks of social media – that would include exclamation points, and all caps, and repetition of letters, those are the three main ones that show enthusiasm – people use more of them,” confirmed linguistics professor Deborah Tannen in the Atlantic recently.
This phenomenon is also why emojis are so useful, and probably why the “tears of joy” emotion in particular is so popular.
Are we experiencing emoji inflation too?
Like the three exclamation points that are now required to convey genuine excitement over text, the “laughing while crying” emoji is an exaggeration. “People do not generally break down into tears when they laugh,” cognitive psychologist Monica Riordan sensible points out to Quartz. Chances are excellent that when you use this emoji you are not literally shedding tears of mirth. Probably you’re just feeling mildly amused or affectionate.
But put an emoji that actually reflects your hint of a smile into your text and you’ll come across as completely underwhelmed by the other party’s comment.
The subtleties of real world emotion, in other words, don’t generally work well when translated into text. And as we all get desensitized to just one exclamation point or your standard issue smiley face emoji, they work even less well. Over-the-top expressions are needed to break through the inherent flatness and chilliness of the medium, and our own increasingly jaded view of punctuation.
That means each year we reach for fresher and more extreme punctuation and pictures to express our feelings. Which very well be why an over-the-top emoji ended up on the top of the list of most popular pictographs.
What’s the most used emoji on your phone?
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.