Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t like and hid your displeasure by acting enthusiastic? To be kind or to prevent others from feeling bad, we sometimes decide to hide a negative emotion. This is what in Psychology is known as display rules; That is, informal norms that a social group or culture shares to indicate how we should express ourselves.
If we receive a gift, we are supposed to appear pleased, so we shouldn’t show our disappointment. It is a set of prescribed rules that we learn very early in life through interactions with the others and sometimes also after being reprimanded for being too honest.
Without a doubt, display rules can promote harmony in interpersonal relationships, but they can also have negative consequences for those who decide to repress their emotions, especially when it becomes the norm. Given that we increasingly interact through social networks and instant messaging systems, psychologists have wondered if we apply the same display rules in the online world and if these can affect our well-being.
Are you smiling or do you want to hide your discomfort?
Researchers at the University of Tokyo recruited 1,289 people who frequently used emojis in their Internet chat messages to report their feelings. Participants answered questions about their subjective well-being and indicated how often they used emojis in their communication. They were then provided with messages in different social contexts to respond to as they usually would while indicating the intensity of their emotion expression.
The study found that people used emojis more with close friends and in private contexts, which is not surprising since in formal contexts the use of emojis is considered more inappropriate.
As a general rule, emojis matched the expression of emotions, unless people felt the need to mask what they were feeling. In that case, they used to use smiling emojis to hide their negative emotions. Instead, they turned to negative emojis only when the negative feelings were very intense.
The researchers found that the use of positive emojis to express positive feelings was correlated with personal well-being, but that when they were used to hide the expression of negative feelings they could be harmful.
The risks of hiding emotions
More than 90% of Internet users around the world use emojis, which are a very effective graphic symbol to convey our status, accentuate emotional tone, clarify intent, and express subtle moods in a message.
“As online socialization becomes more prevalent, people are becoming accustomed to embellishing their emotional expressions by seeking the appropriateness of communication. However, this can lead us to lose touch with our authentic emotions,” the researchers explained.
In fact, previous research has found that we often use emojis as functional equivalents of our facial expressions, so they don’t always relate to what we’re really feeling. In other words, sometimes emojis are the digital equivalent of a fake smile in face-to-face communication.
In Japanese culture, there is a differentiation between “tatemae,” which refers to socially attuned motives or intentions, and “honne,” which represents our deepest reasons and intentions. Ideally, both concepts should be on the same wavelength.
When this is not the case, but instead we feel the need to subordinate our most genuine feelings to social expectations, an uncomfortable emotional dissonance arises that generates discrepancies between inner experience and what one is supposed to feel. When this dissonance increases, we experience emotional exhaustion.
If we repress emotions to express only those that are considered appropriate, we can end up suffering from highly harmful emotional alienation. Additionally, we are more likely to suffer from depressive symptoms.
In addition to the cathartic effect of expressing what we feel, we must remember that inconsistencies between the emotions we express and what we feel also rob us of opportunities to connect with the others on a deeper level and receive the social support we need. Therefore, it is not surprising that faking emotions has been related to a deterioration in psychological well-being, according to a study from the University of North Carolina.
Without a doubt, emojis are useful tools to express emotions in cyberspace, but we should make sure that they correspond to what we really feel.
Liu, M. (2023) Are you really smiling? Display rules for emojis and the relationship between emotion management and psychological well-being. Front. Psychol; 14: 10.3389.
Erle, T. M. (2021) Emojis as social information in digital communication. Emotion; 22: 1529–1543.
Mesmer-Magnus, J. R., Dechurch, L. A., and Wax, A. (2012). Moving emotional labor beyond surface and deep acting a discordance–congruence perspective. Organ. Psychol. Rev; 2: 6–53.