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Psychologists say using emojis is more important than ever right now. Seriously

Whether it’s being able to freely walk outside, shop for supplies without feeling like you’re in a scene from Mad Max, or just enjoy a booming economy, there’s plenty to miss about the pre-coronavirus world. But face-to-face communication with friends and colleagues is something a lot of us are missing out on as well. Sure, an email sent from your couch can substitute for chatting by the office water cooler in terms of factual content, it still misses out on some of the more nuanced shades of personal communication favored by humans.

For that reason, researchers from the U.K.’s University of Chichester have an idea that, on the face of it, sounds kind of wacky:We should make up for the 93% of communication cues that are lost when messaging online, compared to speaking with colleagues face to face, by using emojis. Like, lots of emojis.

While the cartoon smiley faces and other pictograms might seem frivolous, they can serve as crucial tools for substituting for things like body language and tone of voice.

emoji on laptop
NurPhoto / Getty

“When we are communicating via emails, we are only revealing the content and leaving out vocal tones and facial expressions,” Dr. Moitree Banerjee, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Chichester, told Digital Trends. “Hence we are not revealing enough cues for our colleagues to make effective inferences. Emojis can help immensely in communication as a proxy cue of attitude of the communicator. [They are] quasi-nonverbal cues. Emoticons allow receivers to correctly understand the level and direction of emotion, attitude, and attention expression. Apart from conveying the attitude, emojis can also provide reassurance that the receiver may need.”

The idea that text is a valid substitute for spoken words is something that anyone who has used some variation of the phrase “it’s not what they said, but how they said it” will be familiar with. A classic psychology study carried out in 1967 showed that someone’s tone of voice took precedence over the content of their words when determining meaning. Facial expressions additionally factor highly in inferring communicator attitudes.

More recently, a study published in 2015 reported that employees perceive face-to-face communication to be of higher quality than telephone and email communication. Face-to-face communication was also strongly and positively related to employees’ job satisfaction and their perceptions of their supervisors’ effectiveness, along with team identification.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

This might help to explain why people are currently jumping on services like Zoom to turn what would have previously been an email exchange into a video call. It’s inevitable that text-based conversations will have to occur, though — which is where emojis come in.

“My suggestion is that this is the right time to move away from mindless communication to mindful communication,” Banerjee said. “It is the time to cultivate awareness and be non-judgmental; for the sender and receiver to be aware of the gaps in communication caused by this new mode of communication. It may be unorthodox to use emojis in a formal work setup. However, this might be the [moment] to break some barriers, given the current uncertain times.”

Just make sure to avoid the eggplant emoji. We hear the kids have changed what that one means. It’s no longer just the basis for a great baba ghanoush!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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