Emojis can be confusing.

Even if you’re not a regular texter, you’re definitely familiar with emoji (that’s right, the plural is the same as the singular): they appear in advertising, in captions and in videos.

In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries even declared an emoji to be the word of the year: “face with tears of joy,” otherwise known as “crying laughing.”

The history of emoji goes back further than you might think, and with over 60 percent of people over 35 considering themselves “frequent” emoji users, there’s no doubt that emoji are here to stay.

However, for all the emoji flying around in our texts and captions, there’s not a whole lot of consensus on those emoji meanings.

A 2016 study illustrated the huge misunderstandings that can happen when people use emoji: From the meaning to the emotion, misinterpretations are extremely common.

All emoji are made with Unicode, but they all look different on different platforms, from Apple and Android to Facebook and Twitter.

Most of the confusion in understanding seems to arise with the face emoji, which makes sense; even in real life, one person’s joyful smile is another person’s sarcastic smirk.

Similarly, the emoji which appears to be grimacing on Apple devices is grinning on Android ones!

However, there is some general consensus as to the use and meaning of most emoji, some of it based on the Japanese creators’ intent, and some on the way they have come to be interpreted and used here in the West.

Be sure to bookmark this handy guide, because it could help to prevent some serious communication errors!


Meaning: This emoji is sometimes mistaken for sobbing, but the actual emoji meaning is laughter – laughing so hard you cry, that is.

When to use it: When your cat, kid, or spouse does or says something hilarious.


Meaning: The upside-down smiling face can be used to mean silliness or playfulness, but its best use is for a thing that’s often really hard to convey over text: Sarcasm! You’re smiling, but you’re not really smiling, you know?

When to use it: Your friend asks you to pick them up from the airport, and you say “Sure!” before they tell you they get in at 5am.


Meaning: This is called “relieved face,” but we’ve always thought it’s more of a quiet, modest contentment.

When to use it: Someone lets you know they really like the gift you sent them.


Meaning: Smiling face with sweat is perfect for those times you think something will turn out OK, but you’re still a little nervous about it. Like that big presentation. It’s going to be fine.

When to use it: When the forecast for the surprise birthday picnic you’re planning switches to “chance of rain” the day before.


Meaning: The smirking face emoji can also indicate sarcasm, but be careful with its usage: This emoji is often used for flirting! To be safe, just don’t send it to anyone you’re related to.

When to use it: Bantering with that cutie. You know the one.


Meaning: According to the creators, this face is supposed to mean “screaming in fear.” It does have quite a resemblance to the painting The Scream, but we think it works for showing shock, too.

When to use it: You’re texting your spouse to come remove a spider from the bathroom.


Meaning: We all know that wearing sunglasses makes us look cool and effortless, and this emoji is used to capture that feeling: someone or something that is totally awesome.

When to use it: You just got a promotion.


Meaning: This face is used to indicate being asleep. Or being so bored you could fall asleep. Also, you snore. Sorry you had to find out this way!

When to use it: You really need to go home and go to bed.


Meaning: This emoji is technically called the “sleepy face” emoji, but is more commonly used to represent weary sadness or sometimes illness.

When to use it: It’s been a long, tough week.


Meaning: Jazz hands? Confusion? Feeling pretty? Nope. This emoji is meant to indicate a hug!

When to use it: Someone shares good news with you!


Meaning: Although this looks like someone gently teasing you, it’s actually meant to indicate something delicious. Like, cookies delicious.

When to use it: Sometimes, you just have to post a pic of your brunch. This is the emoji for that picture.


Meaning: This is one of the most flexible emoji out there. Although its name is “unamused face,” it’s often referred to as the “side eye emoji,” and can be used to indicate annoyance, disapproval, or skepticism.

When to use it: When rumours are flying that your team is going to trade your favourite player.


Meaning: The “grimacing face” is used for a range of negative emotions: nervousness, awkwardness, embarrassment, it covers them all!

When to use it: Your phone autocorrects a word and suddenly your message is the opposite of what you meant to say.


Meaning: The “face without mouth” emoji is useful for those times you’re rendered speechless. It can also be interpreted as very deliberately not commenting, such as when you’re gossiping about someone’s outfit choice. Not that we would ever judge.

When to use it: For the (rare) times when you do judge.


Meaning: Although the two faces with small tear might look similar, they’re intended to have different meanings. This one is called “sad but relieved face” while the other is simply “crying face.” How to tell them apart? Well, this emoji isn’t crying. It’s sweating! And the eyebrows are tilted up, rather than down. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

When to use it: We still think it looks like it’s crying. Use when you’re upset, but things could have been worse. Like when you burnt the cookies, but only half of them.

Image credit: Shutterstock

This article originally appeared in Reader’s Digest.