International emoji use and meaning

As brands and businesses, we know words change meaning between countries, but have you ever considered treating emojis the same way? One brand took this to the next level when, in 2017, Today Translations hired the world’s first Emoji Translator. Why? Well, in one country, the red heart emoji could get you arrested, and to some users, the crying laughing emoji has a very different meaningโ€ฆ

Today we’re diving into the meanings of emojis around the world and their popularity between cultures and generations. Our translators also share the two essential things to consider using emojis for different audiences and markets.

Letโ€™s get started!

Did you know there’s an international body responsible for the tiny images that adorn your text messages? Well, there is, and they’re called Unicode. Their emoji experts release the Emoji Frequency every year or two to track the use of emojis worldwide.

In the latest data from 2021, we found a few clear leaders when it comes to the go-to emoji across different countries. But, as we’ll discuss later, simply because many texters use a set emoji doesn’t mean they use it for the same purpose. 

Before you continue, look at the ‘most recent’ section on your emoji keyboard and see how you compare to the leading emojis.

Unsurprisingly to most, the laughing crying emoji “๐Ÿ˜‚” tops the emoji-usage leaderboard in a significant proportion of countries around the world.

The red heart emoji “โค๏ธ” is the second most popular emoji. 

The laughing crying emoji and red heart emojis race ahead of the crowd regarding widespread adoption. From rank three onwards, the difference in usage becomes minimal. In case you’re interested, the top 10 emojis for 2021 were: “๐Ÿ˜‚ โค๏ธ ๐Ÿคฃ ๐Ÿ‘ ๐Ÿ˜ญ ๐Ÿ™ ๐Ÿ˜˜ ๐Ÿฅฐ ๐Ÿ˜ ๐Ÿ˜Š”.

An interesting phenomenon in recent years is the increase in the green, yellow, and white square emojis “๐ŸŸฉ, ๐ŸŸจ, โฌœ” driven by the popularity of the game Wordle. The rise of these coloured emojis indicates an exciting potential for emojis to be used beyond emotions.

The growing importance of understanding emoji meaning

According to Unicodeโ€™s report, 92% of all texters use emojis. As we use emojis more, the frequency of misunderstandings is also likely to rise. Therefore itโ€™s more important than ever to be clear on your intentions when using emojis. The risk of misinterpretation is significant when we use them in business-critical email subject lines, social media posts, and chats between colleagues.

Japanese mobile phone software developers were the creators of Emojis back in 1999. As a result, a large volume of emojis directly relates to Eastern culture, especially in the food category. Letโ€™s dive into the differences between countries and generations when using emojis.

Emoji differences between countries

Western/English speaking emoji interpretationAlternative emoji interpretationEmoji
The thumbs up emoji is used to confirm or agree with a statement or questionIn Greece and the Middle East thumbs up is an aggressive and negative symbol๐Ÿ‘
The clapping hands emoji is used to congratulate or celebrate a topicIn China, clapping hands often represents sex๐Ÿ‘
The metal horns emoji is used between metal music fans, or to โ€œRock onโ€. For some itโ€™s also used to represent โ€œI love youโ€ in sign language. These are both generally positive interpretationsIn Italy, Greece, Portugal, Brazil, Colombia and Argentina, the metal horns emoji is often used to insinuate adultery or cheating between partners๐Ÿค˜
The waving hand emoji is used to greet or say goodbye to another userIn China, a waving hand is known to signify someone ending their friendship with the recipient๐Ÿ‘‹
The angel emoji is used to represent innocence while textingIn China, the angel emoji represents death and is often interpreted as a threat๐Ÿ‘ผ
The slightly smiling emoji is generally used to communicate a feeling of contentIn China, texters will use the slightly smiling emoji to communicate a feeling of distrust in someone elseโ€™s message๐Ÿ™‚
The red heart emoji is used to share a feeling of romantic or platonic love and appreciation with the recipient or topic at handIn Saudi Arabia, a red heart is seen as sexual harassment with a punishment of a fine up to SR100,000 ($26,656) and/or a two-year jail termโค๏ธ
The building emojis, each featuring a H or cross are interpreted as a hospital in the westIn Japan, users are highly aware of the differences between these three emojis which are in fact; a love hotel (specifically designed for couples to have some privacy), a hotel, and a hospital respective to their order in this article๐Ÿฉ/๐Ÿจ/๐Ÿฅ

Emoji differences between generations

Emoji usage varies between generations, but less than you might think. Online, the laughing face emoji is classed as Millennial (1979-1995) by Generation Z (1995-2010), yet reports shows itโ€™s still popular with younger users.

In this anecdotal piece from Buzzfeed,  the author found younger generations use emojis sarcastically compared to Generation X (1964-1978), who are often more literal. Specifically, the general population see the slightly smiling emoji โ€œ๐Ÿ™‚โ€ we accounted for in our culture roundup as a positive. But this emoji is heavily sarcastic for the younger generation and carries the opposite meaning.

Gen Z also uses a combination of emojis to represent something shocking โ€œ๐Ÿ‘๏ธ๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘๏ธโ€ which may appear as an odd way to draw a face to Generation X.

Emojis 2

Emoji use in the workplace

If you have an international team, setting emoji standards for all employees is wise. Remember the red heart emoji in Saudi Arabia? 

Some users may see no problem using sarcastic or suggestible emojis. Still, it’s in everyone’s interest to keep internal communications clear, consistent, and accessible for all generations and nationalities in your workforce.

Good rules of thumb for all workplaces are:

  • Do not replace full words with emojis
  • Only use emojis for instant chat with your direct team members
  • Create a ‘do not use’ list for everyone containing suggestible or violent emojis such as the knife or side smiling face
  • Finally, a dose of common sense – remind staff, ‘If in doubt, don’t use it’

Two essential criteria for localising cross-cultural content with emojis

Now we’ve discussed the implications of copying and pasting emojis between your target markets; we can move on to how to translate your emojis. To get you started on translating your emojis, here are the two essential criteria to work with for any emojis you use internationally:

1. Device and keyboard choice

A user’s device can play a huge role in interpreting an emoji for two key reasons: design differences and supported emojis.

Each emoji keyboard or operator (such as Apple vs WhatsApp vs Samsung) has their variation of emoji design. As a result, the strength of the emotion represented can change between the eyebrows, eye size, and mouth of each design.

Looking at supported emojis, generally, operators are consistent, but not always. In 2017, all platforms changed the gun emoji to feature a water pistol. However, Microsoft took longer than other platforms. The syringe emoji was also changed in 2021 from containing blood to being clear to represent a vaccine. Again operators updated their designs on different dates.

When translating your emojis, look at the design variations hosted on Emojipedia before moving forward.

2. Cultural norms and expectations

Once you’ve validated the design and consistency of your emojis in the original language, look at the cultural sensitivities of your target language.

Critically, consider religion and cultural norms between countries.

For example, orange is just a colour for most people. But it represents the Protestant religion in Ireland, which may upset some customers. Similarly, a winky face may appear fun in some cultures but overly informal or flirtatious to others.

Use a professional translation or localisation expert to understand the interpretations of emojis in your target region.

Our team of localisation experts and translators are no strangers to the intricacies of translation. From tag lines to idioms to emojis, we use native speakers to create a rich and authentic version of your content. Read more about our work on marketing translations, or get in touch with us for a friendly chat about your project needs.

Kitty LEaF blog 2021

About the Author


Kitty Trewhitt is a translation project manager at LEaF Translations. She oversees each phase of the translation project and keeps in contact with both the client and linguists throughout the process. Besides managing our projects, Kitty also translates and proofreads texts from French and Italian into English, as well as creating LEaFโ€™s monthly newsletter and managing the company social media accounts.