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A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis
A brief history of communication: hieroglyphics to emojis

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5 The universality of body language

Emojis are grouped into different categories of symbols. By far the most popular are those which represent facial expressions (the smileys) and gestures. But does the fact that they’re so popular globally mean that they work as a type of global language? Or to put it another way, are people all across the world able to understand emojis in the same way, or do different cultures interpret some of the symbols in different ways?

One of the ways we can answer this is looking at the facial expressions and gestures on which emojis are based.

Activity 2 Types of body language

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes

Have a look at these uses of various different types of body language. Which signs or gestures do you think are universal (i.e. can be understood by anyone anywhere in the world) and which are culture-specific?

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Figures 5–9 Demonstrating different types of body language
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  1. The smile: communicating that you’re happy
  2. The frown: communicating that you’re angry
  3. The shoulder shrug: communicating that you don’t know
  4. The thumbs up: communicating that you approve
  5. The thumb and finger circle: communicating that everything is OK


The universally understood signals here are the facial expressions, especially those which convey basic emotions such as happiness, anger, fear and so on. These are often produced subconsciously, and evidence in fact suggests that they may be hard-wired into us (Matsumoto and Willingham, 2009). People who are blind from birth, for instance, still smile and frown, suggesting that facial expressions are both universal and innate.

The shoulder shrug to convey the idea that you’re indifferent, or don’t really know the answer to something, also seems to be universal, although it’s noteworthy that the accompanying facial expression (raised eyebrows and downturned mouth) is an important part of how the message is conveyed.

The thumbs up as a sign of approval is generally understood around the world. However, there are certain countries, such as Iran, where it has a negative meaning. It is interesting to note that, in Greece, where the sign once had a pejorative meaning, it no longer does. This may well be because of the way it’s used in a positive sense in global media, which has thus had an effect on its local meaning.

The so-called ‘OK’ sign made with thumb and forefinger touching in a circle is socially the most risky bit of body language of those presented here. There are a number of countries where its use would be understood as insulting. In France, for example, it is often used to represent zero and conveys the idea that someone or something is worthless, while in other countries, such as Brazil, it represents a certain bodily orifice (no, not the mouth) and is not meant as a compliment!

As these examples show, a great deal of body language is culturally learned. Indeed, even facial expressions, although universal, are influenced by culture. The degree to which people show emotion in public is regulated by cultural norms – it is perfectly acceptable in some cultures while not in others. It is also worth considering context when deciding what particular gestures and bodily expressions mean.

For these various reasons then, although the pictorial nature of emojis such as 😀, ☹️, 🤷‍♀️, 👌 and 👍 may make us suppose they can be universally understood, there are still culturally-specific elements in play.