Are women over-emojinal?

To mark World Emoji Day on July 17, the Empire State Building was lit up in emoji yellow, and Leah Fessler wrote a piece for Quartz* about why feminists should stop using emoji. She’d realised, she explained, that larding your messages with smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs-up signs (as well as exclamation points, which she treats as honorary emoji) is yet another form of emotional labour the world demands from women.

From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points.

Fessler was determined to break her emoji habit, but initially she found it hard; she felt ‘rude and awkward’ replying to messages with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘sure’ rather than a cheery thumbs-up or an enthusiastic ‘absolutely!’ But a few days in, she found she was starting to reap the benefits. Ditching the emoji, she reports, ‘wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering’.

Ah, the E-word–so often the canary in the coalmine of language-policing bullshit. Despite its use of sociological terms like ‘conditioning’ and ’emotional labour’, this is still basically an example of the formula I’ve analysed in previous posts about ‘just’, ‘sorry’, uptalk et al. First, you identify something women do, or are believed to do, more than men; next, you explain why that’s a problem for women; finally, you exhort women to empower themselves by changing their behaviour. Embellish the basic argument with some personal anecdotes, finish with an Uplifting Thought (‘even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, the way you view yourself’)–et voilà, job done.

But enough of the snark: let’s try to unpick the argument.

Since emoji came into widespread use, their merits or otherwise have been extensively discussed, and opinion has been divided. On one hand they’ve been lauded in pieces (misguidedly) proclaiming them a new universal tongue, ‘the world’s fastest growing language’; on the other they’ve been belittled in comments like this one from the New York Times:

Given their resemblance to the stickers that adorn the notebooks of schoolgirls, not to mention their widespread adoption as the lingua franca of tweens and teens everywhere, some people wonder whether grown men should be using [emoji] at all.

This has something in common with the popular response to other linguistic innovations, like uptalk and vocal fry, which are associated with young women. When a linguistic form is stereotyped as a ‘girl thing’, you can bet that people will disparage it–and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls. Uptalk, for instance, has persistently been interpreted as a sign that the speaker doesn’t know what she really thinks, and/or is desperate for others’ approval–a story we’d find less intuitively plausible if it were told about something middle-aged men did. (If you want to know why linguists who’ve studied uptalk don’t buy this interpretation, see here).

By likening them to the decorative stickers young girls put on their school notebooks, the writer quoted above implies that women’s enthusiasm for emoji is of a piece with their more general fondness for frivolous embellishments. In scholarly discussions you’re more likely to encounter a different stereotype: women use emoji more than men because they’re more ’emotionally expressive’. Apart from being suspiciously circular (is there any evidence that women are more emotionally expressive apart from the kinds of emotional expression which their emotional expressiveness is meant to explain?), this argument presupposes that expressing emotion must be the function of emoji. Which might seem to be self-evident (isn’t the clue in the name?), but is actually an oversimplification.

That emoji are neither purely decorative nor all about the expression of emotion becomes clearer if you know something about their history. The precursors of emoji, emoticons (the earliest of these were smiley and winky faces made by combining ASCII characters, and they were invented by a grown man, or so he claims) were taken up by participants in early online forums to address a problem in what was then a new communication medium. Written language offers fewer resources than speech for signalling how you intend your message to be taken. In speech you’ve got the pitch, tone, loudness and quality of your voice (plus in face-to-face contexts facial expressions and body language), but in text-based interaction you’ve got none of these. This was leading to conflict when messages that were meant to be ironic or humorous prompted angry reactions from others who read them ‘straight’. Emoticons were ‘meta’ devices which enabled writers to signal their intentions more explicitly.

Today’s emoji are more diverse than emoticons in both their forms and their functions. They do provide resources for emotional expression, but that isn’t the only thing they’re used for. They’ve retained their usefulness as indicators of ironic or humorous intent, and they can also serve as tools for managing the mechanics of text-based interaction. On Twitter, for instance, the heart is often used simply as an acknowledgment token, to let someone know you’ve seen a tweet rather than to express your feelings about its content. In that case its affective meaning (‘heart = love’) is irrelevant, and competent users understand that. The same applies to the office conventions Leah Fessler complains about, like acknowledging meeting reminders with a thumbs-up emoji. Though the thumbs-up gesture conventionally symbolises enthusiasm, in this context it’s no more likely to mean ‘I’m really excited about this meeting’, than the Twitter heart is to mean ‘I’m in love with this tweet’. Using it is less a form of emotional labour than a labour-saving device (it’s quicker and easier than composing a verbal acknowledgment).

But if emoji aren’t just about emoting, or decoration, how do we explain women using them more than men? Actually, let’s go back a step: do women use them more than men?

Some of the evidence presented to support this claim should be approached with caution, because it comes from studies which asked people to report on their emoji use rather than analysing their actual output. Self-reports vary in accuracy, and they’re liable to be influenced by the subjects’ beliefs about who uses what kind of language (if a form is associated with women, that in itself may lead men to under-report their use of it). However, the generalisation that women use emoji more than men does have some credible research evidence to back it up. One frequently-cited study was done in Texas in 2012: researchers analysed 124,000 real text messages produced by subjects who granted access to their phones without knowing what the research was about. Women in this sample were twice as likely as men to include emoticons in a text–though their overall frequency was low for both sexes (only 4% of the texts sampled contained any).

But research also shows that gender is not the only variable affecting how, and how much, emoji are used. You can’t easily generalise across genres, platforms and devices–text messages aren’t the same as emails, and what goes for Tinder doesn’t apply to Twitter. Nor can you sensibly talk about ‘women’ or ‘men’ as homogeneous categories, without reference to intersecting variables like age and social background. It can also make a difference who the messages are addressed to. One early study of emoticon use in newsgroups (which were important online forums before Web 2.0 and smartphones) found that women in all-female or female dominated groups used more emoticons than men in all-male or male dominated ones. In mixed newsgroups, however, there was no significant difference: women used emoticons at much the same rates as they did in all-female groups, but men used them much more frequently when they were participating in a mixed group. This is not an unusual observation. Masculinity and femininity are often performed differently in single-sex and mixed sex interaction, where people are responding to different kinds of peer pressure, and where they may also be having different kinds of conversations.

In sum: ‘women use emoji more than men’ is probably true as far as it goes; there’s also plenty of evidence showing that certain emoji are used more by women and others are used more by men. However, these descriptive generalisations (like all statements about ‘men’ and ‘women’) mask significant variation within each group. And no descriptive generalisation (if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious) constitutes an explanation of the facts it describes.

As I’ve already said, there’s a tendency for researchers to go straight for the ‘women are more emotionally expressive’ explanation. But as I’ve also already said, this is not entirely satisfactory. And there are other possibilities which fit at least as well with things we know about gender and communication in other contexts. For instance:

The difference might be a matter of style (a word which shouldn’t, in the context of language, be taken to denote something trivial). Online and offline, language is one of the symbolic resources which people draw on to create a distinctive persona, and to mark themselves as members or non-members of particular social groups or subcultures. Many small differences in pronunciation do this job: different variants of the same sound may be used to differing degrees or in different ways by speakers of different ages, classes, ethnicities and genders. The same principle might explain why men and women use an overlapping but non-identical range of emoji, and why women use them more frequently overall. You could compare it to the way we style our clothes or our hair: with emoji as with clothes, it seems that mainstream masculinity is less flamboyant than the feminine equivalent. (Interestingly, a study that investigated the perceived gender of the most popular emoji found that the ones ranked most ‘feminine’ included ‘face throwing a kiss’ and ‘face with tears of joy’, while the most ‘masculine’ were the more prosaic ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘OK’ symbols).

The difference might also be a by-product of the fact that men and women, if we insist on considering them as aggregates, tend to be members of different social networks in which they have conversations about different things. This is a point demonstrated in many tedious Big Data studies of vocabulary: I wish I had £10 for every article I’ve read which announces that ‘men and women use different words’, when all the research really shows is that people generally use words which pertain to the subject under discussion. Amazingly enough, women posting family news on Facebook tend to use more words relating to kinship and family occasions (like ‘grandma’ and ‘wedding’) than men debating current affairs or the performance of Arsenal Football Club. Most emoji are less subject-specific in their application than most words, but it’s still reasonable to think that which and how many of them you use might have something to do with who you’re talking to and what about.

It’s also possible that women’s more frequent use of emoji exemplifies the common pattern where innovations which are destined to spread through the whole population become visible first among young women. Because of that, we start out assuming they’re a ‘girl thing’ and looking for explanations which connect them to femininity; but as they spread it becomes apparent that they weren’t so much a girl thing as a new thing that girls got onto first. This is what has happened with uptalk: once a Valley Girl signature, it’s now heard among young and even middle-aged speakers, of both sexes, in many parts of the English-speaking world. Maybe the emoji gap between men and women will also narrow over time, making the question of why women use more emoji redundant.

This is not a multiple choice test where there’s only one right answer: the social life of language is too complex for one-size-fits-all explanations. And that’s an especially important point to bear in mind when you’re trying to explain gendered behaviour, because the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ are so internally diverse–different subsets of men and women may be using or not using emoji for different reasons. I know I keep on saying this, but it really can’t be over-emphasised: no single thing can explain the behaviour of every member of a group which comprises half of humankind.

Do I think Leah Fessler is describing a real phenomenon? Yes. I think the pressure to be relentlessly upbeat and positive is a feature of many workplace cultures, and I also think there are good reasons to be critical of it (if you’re interested, this is the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die). But do I think it follows that women should stop using emoji? No. Emoji are not the problem here. Like other attempts to ’empower’ women by changing their behaviour rather than the conditions it’s a response to, the ‘feminist case against emoji’ is fundamentally a pile of poo.

*Thanks to Mercedes Durham for drawing my attention to the Quartz piece.

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