Ana Veciana-Suarez: Sometimes emojis’ message lost in translation

By Ana Veciana-Suarez - Tribune News Service

I love emojis. If you’re one of my texting buddies, you know that I’m quick to the draw when I want to display emotion on my smartphone.

Celestial help needed? I’ll send you a pair of praying hands.

Celebrating a birthday? I’ll tap the cake with candles.

Proud of an accomplishment? A thumbs-up is in order.

Emojis are modern-day hieroglyphics, easy to use when gestures aren’t possible. I’m certain that coming up with an emoji — the bursting head face! the smiling poop! the beach umbrella! the broken heart! — has got to be one of the most interesting jobs around. So much fun, right?

Apparently not. Emojis, it seems, can be fraught with misinterpretation. Forget cute. Forget funny. They have become a potential minefield in the vast and varied land of human communication — yet more proof that what might be crystal clear to one person is nonetheless murky as river-bottom to another.

Emojis, for instance, are breaking new ground in courts, and they’re doing so in ways most lawyers and judges couldn’t have predicted a decade or two ago. A CNN report last week said that, as more emojis show up in court cases, attorneys are arguing about what they mean. In response, courts are scrambling to assess their value as evidence.

Take the heart emoji. It’s my favorite symbol to send to my granddaughters, a simple shorthand that reminds them (as if they needed it) how much I love them. Under certain circumstances, however, that heart might be interpreted as sexual harassment. A smiley face, too, needs context. It came up as evidence in a possible violation of the family medical leave act, when a manager sent it to an employee after termination. And the dizzy face emoji — the one with Xs for eyes — was entered into evidence in a Massachusetts murder case by prosecutors who claimed it proved the sender was up to no good.

That’s a new one for me. I’ve never used that particular X-eyed emoji, namely because I don’t have a clue about what it could possibly represent.

Though emojis-as-evidence are more common in criminal and sexual harassment cases, courts aren’t necessarily being flooded with them — yet. A Santa Clara University law professor who keeps track of such things noted that there were 33 court cases with emojis in 2017. By 2018 that had jumped to 52, and in the first half of this year we already had 50.

It’s not just the courts that are wrangling with emojis. Apple and Google are finding out that these handy-dandy symbols are far from being a universal language. The smiley face is interpreted as sarcasm in China, and the thumbs-up is considered vulgar in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, the Unicode Consortium, which sets the standard for emojis, announced that by the second half of 2019 it would introduce a slew of new emojis, including one for menstruation, one for dumplings and several to expand representation of skin shades and disabilities. Surprise, surprise, these new symbols attracted their share of controversy. The original menstruation emoji, submitted by the nonprofit Plan International UK, was a pair of “period pants” (underwear emblazoned with a blood drop), but Unicode took a pass, offering a plain blood drop instead. Critics have labeled that too generic.

We shouldn’t worry about being too general in our symbolism, though. I’m certain the list of emojis will continue to expand into infinity. At last count, if you add the 230 new emojis (which include 171 just-introduced variants for gender and skin tones), there are currently a whopping 3,053 emojis to tempt your trigger finger. Overwhelming? Sure. As a writer, I know there’s no guarantee of achieving clarity having too many choices. Sometimes the message gets lost in translation.

Then again, with more choices comes more opportunity. It’s only a matter of time before someone somewhere will give emojis their own dictionary and thesaurus.

By Ana Veciana-Suarez

Tribune News Service

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at or visit her website Follow @AnaVeciana.

Ana Veciana-Suarez writes about family and social issues. Email her at or visit her website Follow @AnaVeciana.

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