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How to Use Emojis

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By Malia Wollan

“It’s so easy to be angry online,” says Jennifer Daniel, the creative director of emojis at Google. “Emojis give you permission to be gentler.” In a study involving nearly four million users in 212 countries, the most commonly used emojis were related to faces, hearts and hands. The most popular emoji is 😂, and in 2017 the ❤️emoji appeared more than 14 billion times in Instagram comments. When people communicate in short bits of text, they lose the physical signals that suggest warmth and connection. Emojis can help fill that void. Say a friend texts to say he or she is running late: Instead of shooting back an ambiguous “O.K.,” if you’re not angry, add something like a 😘to reinforce your affection despite the tardiness.

There aren’t right or wrong ways to use emojis. Most people use the icons as a form of gesticulation, like jazz hands (“Happy birthday 🎉🥂❤️”). Add nuance. Take note if you’re using just 20 or so well-worn emojis and remember that there are more than 3,000. “Explore the inventory,” Daniel says. If you think the lexicon is missing something, propose a new emoji to the Unicode Consortium, which is responsible for the global standardizing of emoji characters (Daniel serves on the organization’s emoji subcommittee).

Remember that emojis don’t have set meaning, grammar or syntax; they consist mostly of nouns, including 🦔and 🥩. Still, collectively, we are giving these little pictures semantics as we go, which can happen on a macro scale — as when 🐐the becomes a stand in for the acronym GOAT (“greatest of all time”), or when Apple changed its 🍑to look less butt-like in 2016, angering many users who deployed it anatomically and not as a stone fruit (the company quickly retreated). Let emojis be the building blocks of secret, intimate languages. Daniel has a friend who will text 🤸🕳️to mean a nervous breakdown; Daniel’s husband knows that if she sends him a 🌵, it means she’s on her period and in a bad mood. Researchers studying street gangs on Twitter found they often used the gas pump, ⛽, as a stand-in for marijuana. Free yourself psycholinguistically. “I love how children use emojis where it’s just like unicorn, unicorn, unicorn, heart, frog, frog,” Daniel says. “And that is how they’re telling their dad that they love him.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 33 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: How to Use Emojis. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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