If you’ve ever been pleasant to a rude customer while waiting tables, smiled through a friend’s wedding despite disliking their choice of spouse, or graciously received a truly ugly sweater as a gift, you’ve participated in a display rule. This is hiding a negative emotion usually to promote harmony between two individuals and the rules differ by culture. However, they can have negative consequences for the person suppressing a negative emotion or opinion.
As daily interactions become increasingly virtual, display rules are changing. A group of researchers from the University of Tokyo in Japan set out to answer the questions of how emojis are used to reflect emotions in different contexts, if the same display rules apply to emojis, and how they affect a person’s well being.
“As online socializing becomes more prevalent, people have become accustomed to embellishing their expressions and scrutinizing the appropriateness of their communication,” said Moyu Liu, a PhD student studying emotional management in online spaces at the University of Tokyo, in a statement. “However, I realized that this may lead us to lose touch with our authentic emotions.”
Liu is the co-author of a small study published March 3 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, that found that emojis were used to both express positive feelings and soften the more negative ones–such as not liking a friend’s piece of art.
Earlier research established that emojis serve as functional equivalents of facial expressions, but it didn’t look at the relationships between emotions expressed and experienced. It’s here that display rules can be problematic—if there is too much of a dissonance between the emotions that you experience and the emotions that you express, it can lead to emotional exhaustion.
To try to answer this question, Liu’s study observed 1,289 participants who use Simeji, the most-downloaded emoji keyboard in Japan, and how the emojis were used to either express an emotion or mask it.
The participants provided demographic data, answered questions about their subjective well being, and rated how often they use emojis. They were also given messages with different social contexts and asked to respond to them as they would normally, and then rated the intensity of the expression of their emotions.
The study found that texters chose to express more emotions via emoji with people in a private context or with a close friend. The respondents expressed the least amount of emotion with higher-status individuals. The most intense expressions of emotion came with matching emojis, unless the respondents felt the need to mask their true feelings, such as using a smiling emoji to mask sadness.
Only when negative feelings were very strongly felt did the respondents use a negative emoji. Additionally, using emojis to express emotions was associated with higher subjective well being compared to masking emotions.
Liu would like to expand this study with a larger and more varied sample, including more males since the Simeji keyboard is more popular among young women and from different cultural backgrounds.
“First, the highly gender-imbalanced sample may have led to stronger results. Future research should explore potential gender differences in emoji display rules and examine the structural issues surrounding the formation of these emotion cultures,” cautioned Liu. “Second, Japanese culture’s emphasis on interpersonal harmony and concealment of negative emotions may have influenced the results.”