This research investigated how emojis can be used in text messaging to communicate perceived responsiveness, guide impression formation, and contribute to reflected appraisal. Participants (N = 179) disclosed a positive and negative event to a responder (a confederate) over iMessage. Participants were randomly assigned to receive either text only responses or a mixture of text and emoji responses from the responder. For positive self-disclosures, participants had higher ratings of perceived responsiveness when there was convergence in emoji use between the participant and responder than when there was divergence. In other words, participants rated the confederate higher in responsiveness when both or neither used emojis (converged) than when only one used emojis (diverged). There were no effects of emoji use on perceived responsiveness for negative self-disclosures. Additionally, following the set of interactions, participants had more positive impressions of the responder and more positive perceptions of how the responder felt towards the participant (reflected appraisal) when there was convergence rather than divergence in emoji use. Discussion centers around whether emojis can serve as a substitute for nonverbal cues typically found in face-to-face conversations.
Computer-mediated communication in modern life
The rise of smartphone ownership has increased reliance on computer-mediated communication (CMC) to maintain contact with relationship partners. Text messaging is a common form of CMC, and the most used function of mobile phones (Duggan, 2013). Increased text messaging frequency between relationship partners is associated with positive perceptions of the relationship, relationship satisfaction, intimacy, and support (Morey, Gentzler, Creasy, Oberhauster, & Westerman, 2013). Although text messaging (and CMC more generally) is beneficial in that it provides a way to initiate and maintain interpersonal relationships without face-to-face (FtF) contact (Pettigrew, 2009), an important drawback to CMC is the lack of nonverbal cues to differentiate attitude, interest, and emotion (Kiesler, Siegel, & McGuire, 1984). A speaker’s nonverbal cues such as vocal inflection, head nods, smiles, body position, and distance are used to judge the speaker’s attitudes and emotions (Kraut, Lewis, & Swezey, 1982). Without the nonverbal signals customary in FtF communication, CMC offers fewer cues to aid in regulating conversation (Kraut et al., 1982), and may undermine effective communication. One important function of nonverbal behavior is to communicate understanding, validation, and care to conversation partners when they reveal personal details about the self (Maisel, Gable, & Strachman, 2008). These three elements of perceived responsiveness contribute to how people connect and relate to each other (Burgoon & Le Poire, 1999). Intimacy is built and maintained through a process of partners responding supportively to each other’s feelings, thoughts, and experiences, and perceiving each other to understand, validate, and care for core aspects of the self (Reis & Shaver, 1988). The lack of access to nonverbal information in CMC may cause interaction partners to perceive each other as less responsive in this medium.