The secret language of Emoji


It’s rare to see a status, tweet, text or post without an emoji these days. These adorable Japanese icons allow us to inject extra emotion and humour into our electronic communications and, by replacing words with emoji, even save time.

For the most part, emoji are pretty straight forward: you post a smiling face when you’re happy, a crying face when you’re sad and a winking face when you’re being a little bit cheeky. However, because emoji originated in Japan, there are some cultural references which can get lost in translation by those of us not in the know.

That hasn’t stopped nearly every country and culture adopting these funny little images to enhance their online conversational skills. But how did these golden round faces work their way into everyday life, and how are they being used? It’s time to delve into the secret language of emoji.


This is where everything seemed to start. Through our mighty human intellect we learned during the dawn of computer technology that when you typed a colon symbol next to a bracket symbol on the computer, it looked like a crude smiling face. These humanoid text-symbols became known as “emoticons” (which, admit it, you first read as “emotion”).

Emoticons became a great way to convey tone and emotion to our otherwise sterile, black-and-white text. As anyone who’s sent an email knows, it’s far too easy to miscommunicate without the added human features of tone and expression, and emoticons helped clarify the meaning behind messages with pictorial representations (though I still like Arj Barker’s suggestion of fixing the issue with new fonts like “Good Times Roman”).

With the popularity of these symbols growing, the idea arose to turn emoticons into real images, as opposed to just text that resembles an image. So in 1999, Japanese designer Shigataka Kurita invented prototype emoji for the first mobile internet platform: i-mode. This is when the emoji was born.


I think a lot of us born in late-80s to early-90s were first introduced to emoji on chat platform MSN Messenger. When we typed in that familiar emoticon “:)” into the chat window, bam! Up popped this little legend:

smiley msn

Huh! That’s pretty neat. I wonder if there are more…

msn emojis

That’s the moment a lot of us got hooked. Suddenly we are using the “angel” face to feign our innocence, flirting with the “kiss”, “heart”, and “rose”, using the “puppy” face when we’re trying to be cute and get our way and sending one of the “hugging” emoji when we need comforting, in hopes that our friend on the other side of the screen would send back the adjacent one.

This was just my introduction though, and it’s not just Gen Y & Z hooked on emoji. Once emoji came about, every smartphone SMS system, online instant messaging service and almost all platforms that facilitated digital communication jumped on the bandwagon and got their own unique set of emoji pictures.

So sooner or later people of all ages were getting in on the craze. These days half the Facebook comments I get from my Mum are just emoji. Though she’s started sending “stickers” more recently, which is a whole other ball game I won’t get into right now.

Regardless of where you first started using emoji, over time you probably became used to sprinkling these little symbols throughout your digital messages. Though arguably the most recognisable family in the emoji world appears on iPhones.


Before you ask why you should know emoji etiquette, let me remind you of the great power these pictures yield. Emoji have become so big and so popular, that one of them (the “Face with tears of joy”) won the Oxford Dictionaries Word of The Year 2015, as the “word” that “best reflected the ethos, mood and preoccupations of 2015”. Emoji are even thought to be playing a part in the demise of previously popular Internet slang, like the once great “Lol”. It sounds crazy but emoji have even started to be used as evidence in criminal charges. Don’t underestimate their influence!

So when you can’t beat them, you join them. And here are some examples of how to use emoji like a pro.

Faces with water Droplets

Sometimes Gen Y and Gen Z kids take for granted how lucky they were to be introduced to technology at a young age and don’t appreciate that for people who weren’t raised on Tamagotchis, PCs and mobile phones, things might not be so obvious. So we must be forgiving in those cringe-worthy moments when your Grandma sends her condolences for a recent disappointment you had and ends the SMS with “LOL” – she just thought it meant “Lots of Love”!

So I’m here to help you avoid future conundrums like this by explaining that not all of the faces that have water droplets are “crying with sadness”. Here are the real meanings of some of the water droplet faces.

Sleeping Emoji

sleepy emoji

That’s not a crying face with closed eyes: that blue blob that looks like a tear is actually supposed to be a snot bubble! Now, I’ve never seen anyone blowing bubbles of nasal mucus in their sleep (and I’m quite grateful for that), but it seems to be a running joke in Japanese media, where it is even seen as kind of cute. Use this emoji to show that you’re feeling sleepy.

Disappointed but relieved face

disappointed but relieved

With that sad little expression and water droplet, it’s easy to mistake this one for crying. Actually, the droplet in this face is a sweat droplet of relief. The sad-looking expression signifies disappointment rather than sadness. After you’ve been through a stressful situation and you have that “phew!” moment when it’s over, this is the emoji to go with. Or just use it when you’re stressed.

So what is the best face to use when you do want to signify crying? I’d use either:

tear emoji

This tear emoji, or my preferred:


Loudly crying emoji. I like this one best because when I’m crying I like to be as dramatic as possible.

Person with folded hands

folded hands

Not the epic high-five between bros you may have thought it to be, these hands are actually folded together in the Japanese gesture for “Please” or “Thank you”. And that’s exactly how I use it. When I am pleading “please” with someone or gratefully “thanking” them.


hugging emoji

This emoji is called the “hugging emoji”, and I suppose the hands are supposed to be reaching out for a hug. The best way to use this emoji, is to never use this emoji. You’ll just creep people out. Those hands look way too human compared to its big balloony yellow head. Shudder.

This article will end up a mile long if I go through every emoji in the whole emoji-verse, but hopefully these rules will set you up to avoid any emoji etiquette mishaps.

Do you have a favourite emoji? Or have you ever discovered you’ve been using an emoji wrong? Let us know in the comments below.


  1. Scatty says:

    I can’t live without emoticons. A picture says a thousand words that I don’t have to type Great article and it made me smile and took me down memory lane too .

  2. JetsGirl says:

    My dad is new to emoji; this week he posted instead of when a friend passed away. Cringed but still need to tell him he posted the incorrect emoji. That might also have something to do with his eyesight not being fantastic!

  3. Julie says:

    I am definitely in the category where I thought lol meant lots of love, so thank you for the interesting lesson on emoji!

  4. rob says:

    right on

  5. Otto Wynton says:

    Where do I find emojis to put into emails.
    Running Windows 10.

    • Reece Hatton says:

      Hey Otto,

      I believe emoji on Windows 10 are accessed by right clicking the task bar selecting touch keyboard.

      Let us know how it goes, so other people can find them also.

      – Reece

  6. Jude Wilkins says:

    Yes I love them too and have them on my computer but cannot seem to get them on my old iPhone4 – is it too old?

    • Reece Hatton says:

      Hey Jude,

      I believe the iPhone 4 does support emoji. Try the following steps:

      Tap Settings > General > Keyboard.
      Tap Keyboards.
      Tap Add New Keyboard.
      Tap Emoji.

      Let us know how you go!

      – Reece

  7. Trish Ellis says:

    Hi Reece, like Jude I have an old 4 and followed your instructions but what do I do now to bring them up?

    • Reece Hatton says:

      Hey Trish, once the emoji keyboard is active in settings, you should be able to press the smiley or globe icon next to your keyboard in order to bring up other keyboards.

      – Reece

  8. Sharron says:

    Thanks Reece, worked for me.

  9. Denise says:

    Reece thank you sooo much for this info. I used to have emoticons and then suddenly they all disappeared along with lots of my ringtones. It was when IPhone 6 was available.

    Now I have emoticons back YES!! I don’t suppose you know how to get my ringtones back too do you?

    • Reece Hatton says:

      Hey Denise,

      Glad we could help :)

      Ringtones are usually stored in iTunes, you may be able to find them there. Purchased ringtones will usually be able to be found in the same location that they were purchased from.

      – Reece