(Mis)Understanding Emojis Across Cultures


(Mis)understanding Emojis Across Cultures

Le langage est source de malentendus.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry


A recent message from a contact gave pause when it started with the 👋 emoji. While research showed that it is usually intended to say “hello” or “goodbye”, Emojipedia (yes, that’s a thing) said that it can also be used “to convey a sense of not being friends any more when used on WeChat in China.” If this was sent by an American who was in Asia and focuses his work on China, then what did it mean?!

It got us thinking that even in our globalized, multicultural world, the “shared” tech language of emojis may not be as shared as we think. We already know that shared language does not equal shared values across cultures. But, just how “shared” is the language of emojis that we use on the daily in communications around the world?


Emoji = e (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”) in Japanese

Some of our favorite examples of differences:

🤘: Warding off bad luck (Italy, Greece) OR your partner is cheating on you (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, and Uruguay) OR “rock on” (music culture)

🍆: An eggplant (literal) OR a sexual reference (Ireland, Jamaica, or Trinidad among others) OR good luck (in Japan) as the word for aubergine – nasu (ナス) – is similar to the words “to accomplish” or “to fulfill” (成す-also nasu)

🙏: Please or thank you (Japan) OR prayer (Western cultures – Christians in particular since Muslims and Jews don’t pray with hands in this position) OR high-five (pop culture)

👍: Approval (Western cultures) OR a vulgarity (Greece, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Nigeria)

👏: Applause (Western cultures) OR sex (China)

👌: Okay (US) OR the number nine (American Sign Language) OR an offensive gesture (Brazil, Germany, Russia)

Note to self 📝

There’s even more to consider too. Different age groups, operating systems on devices, and levels of internet accessibility can all impact how people within a culture interpret emojis. New emojis also come out each year (here’s the 2019 list). So before you hit send next time, take a moment to think (🤔). Because otherwise you may get a puzzled or mocking (also 🤔) reply.


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