Explication of a favored emoji

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Within the last couple of years, some of my students expressed themselves by sticking this emoji — 😂 — at strategic places in their messages to me.  Funny thing is that I never really knew how to interpret it.  It looks like the face of someone who is laughing so hard that they are crying.  Maybe that's not far off in terms of iconographic analysis, but I was never confident that I was correctly comprehending what the students wanted to communicate to me with this emoji.

About a week ago, Zoom forced me — right as I was about to begin a class!! — to update my system.  Naturally, when it was all over with the cursed passwords (which are one of my biggest trials in life these days [within the next few weeks, I have to change ALL of my passwords, which is being forced on me by UPenn]) and multiple stages of downloading, I was late for class, which gave me a huge amount of stress.

With the new Zoom system, I noticed one big change, namely, in the past when I wanted to comment positively on a student's performance, I could choose from a thumbs up sign or clapping hands.  After the download of the new system, I suddenly had more than half-a-dozen reactions, one of which was 😂.  Although I wasn't sure what it meant, I decided to try it out, which led to a confession to the class on my part that I didn't really know what 😂 meant, followed by a brief discussion in which the students tried to educate me.

The next morning, Selena Zhu wrote this more expansive explanation and sent it to me by e-mail:

I love this emoji deeply, I think it wasn't originally intended to mean that you laugh so hard that you cry. It can also be used when you see something and you're feeling awkward, but cannot really say something to complain, similar to my mood when I see the Burgeranch poster as a Chinese. We call it “gāngà yòu bù shī lǐmào de wéixiào 尴尬又不失礼貌的微笑" ("a slight smile when you feel awkward but want to remain polite"). So if a staff at Bugeranch would come to me and say: "OMG, look how amazing our Chinese poster is", I'll be like:"emmmmm….okay😂“. You must get the sense, hahaha! Also, when I type "kū xiào 哭笑" ("cry-laugh") in "jiǎntǐ pīnyīn 简体拼音" ("simplified Pinyin"), I can actually get this emoji. So I think this emoji tends to mean a situation which makes you "kūxiàobùdé 哭笑不得" ("can neither laugh nor cry; be at a loss; dumbfounded"). And I actually use it a lot in my life!!!😂

Here are some funny pictures to illustrate it! (attached below) I hope you like them!!!!

Selected readings


  1. Thomas Rees said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 4:16 pm

    This is interesting. My iPhone produces when I type “laugh”. I also have Spanish and French installed in my settings, so I tried “reír” and “rire”: they give and . Apparently emoji aren’t as universal as we thought!

  2. Thomas Rees said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 4:22 pm

    Damn! Comments drops emoji: face with tears of joy, grinning face with squinting eyes, winking face with stuck-out tongue

  3. Terry Hunt said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 4:38 pm

    As an aged European white male exposed to, but not a utiliser of, emojis I've always interpreted this one in the 'laughed until I cried' sense.

    However, during a few early years living in Hong Kong and Singapore I encountered, and to some extent came to share, the local tendency to smile/laugh when embarrassed – something that (in the 1960s, at any rate) new UK expats used to be warned about lest they misinterpret it.

    I wonder if Darwin mentioned such regional variations in his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, which otherwise stressed the universality of human expressions?

  4. Julian said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 4:55 pm

    'the smile you make when you feel awkward but want to stay polite' – no doubt there's a word for this in Finnish or Inuit** or something

    **'the smile you make when an ignorant furriner has goofed up when talking about snow'

  5. Su-Chong Lim said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 5:24 pm

    When I tried to run through the embarrassed emotion in my head and to pretend I was back in Singapore where I grew up (1950s-60s), my face went into the embarrassed laugh expression and my tongue stuck out! I remember now, this tongue thing was part of the expression of confusion/embarrassment in the Singapore Chinese culture of my youth. I have never seen it anywhere else, except maybe in the Maori warrior Haka (not the Chinese Hakka, lol) war-dance, where it isn’t exactly the same thing, but, as I understand it, an expression of aggressive defiance. As Terry Hunt wondered, I wonder what Darwin would have thought about this.

  6. Laura Morland said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 5:37 pm

    Fascinating — "I think it wasn't originally intended to mean that you laugh so hard that you cry."

    [Insert puzzled emoji here.]

    In my opinion, that would be true *only if* the "original creator" were Asian. Certainly in the Western world this emoji does indeed mean "that you laugh so hard that you cry." Both my French and U.S. correspondents — whose ages range from 20 to 65+ — certainly use it to convey that meaning. (And see: https://emojipedia.org/face-with-tears-of-joy/ )

    This "cultural reinterpretation" reminds me of this Language Log post, https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=47625, which discussed a cartoon panel that interpreted (misinterpreted, in my book) the "eyeroll emoji" in an unusual fashion:

    "For those who don't speak emoji, "<_<" represents avoiding eye contact due to feeling "guilty" or perhaps evasive for some other reason."

    However, most of the commenters voiced opinions similar to that of https://emojipedia.org/face-with-rolling-eyes/ : "As with the gesture of an eye-roll, [the emoji] commonly conveys moderate disdain, disapproval, frustration, or boredom. Tone varies, including playful, sassy, resentful, and sarcastic, as if saying Yeah, whatever."

    @Thomas Rees, my software is in French, and when I typed "rire" into WhatsApp's emoji-search just now, I was offered six emojis, including the one under discussion. (Another was the "cat laughing so hard it's crying" — even though, as any cat 'owner' knows, cats don't have a sense of humor.)

  7. Adam Field said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 6:55 pm

    Well dang. I'd never seen that emoji before, but "can neither laugh nor cry" is such a perfect description of so much of 2020, I dunno why I hadn't!

  8. Viseguy said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 7:42 pm

    Ironic, isn't it, that these cute little signifiers, invented to add affective context to potentially ambiguous bare text, end up sowing ambivalence or even confusion themselves, fer cryin' out loud.

    I wonder how Russian speakers interpret this emoji. Does it evoke the trope of смех сквозь слезы (laughter through tears), or has it acquired other layers of meaning?

  9. Giles said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 8:06 pm

    I've always seen it as "crying with laughter". Interestingly there seems to be an ongoing problem with older people just seeing it as crying hard — see, eg., https://www.buzzfeed.com/daves4/old-people-emoji

  10. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    February 20, 2021 @ 11:14 pm

    @Laura Morland if I want to side-eye/roll eyes at someone, I don't use "<_<", but rather "¬_¬".

  11. GH said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 2:34 am

    While the meaning of an emoji can become conventionalized, I would argue that their pictographic nature means that there is usually freedom to reimagine and reinterpret them in context.

    Which is a convoluted way of saying that I think I've seen this emoji used in both senses—or, at least, not only in the "laughing until you cry" sense. Specifically, I believe I recently saw it used in the sense of "smiling through the tears" or "happy for you, sad for us" when someone wished a colleague who was leaving good luck in her new job.

    I find it interesting that the image montage doesn't contain the one image I would have expected: the "Hide the pain Harold" image meme. (A photo of an older man—in actuality stock photo model András Arató—smiling with sad eyes.) Perhaps it is not popular in China? Or perhaps it doesn't quite fit the nuanced sense in which the emoji is used; I'm familiar with the boy (in the first picture and others) and cat memes, and would associate them with a slightly different type of situations (more awkward than emotionally painful).

  12. Peter Taylor said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 4:14 am

    Laura Morland said

    In my opinion, that would be true *only if* the "original creator" were Asian.

    There's a strong Japanese component to the history of emoji (to the extent that we use a loan-word from Japanese in English), and Wikipedia says that this particular one first appeared in phones from two Japanese companies.

  13. champacs said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 8:25 am

    According to Emojipedia, in 2021 Face with Tears of Joy has become too cringey to use!

  14. Luke said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 9:57 am

    I interpreted as "laughing so hard that they are crying" as well but I believe it is primarily used in awkward situations to make light of it, rather than to represent the face one would make in such a situation.

  15. DMcCunney said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 12:10 pm

    I'm officially an Old Fart these days. I date to the times when electronic messages were plain text, and emojis were collections of ASCII characters:

    :-) Smile
    :-D Grin
    :-( Frown
    :-p Stick out tongue
    ;-) Wink
    :-} Crooked smile
    :-* Disapproval
    8-O Shock

    and many more. Folks got quire creative in combining characters.

    ('m still in forums that are plain text and require that. And if you are on Facebook, the ASCII form placed into a message you post will be converted by the corresponding graphic emoji character.

    If you wanted to use multiple lines, you got things like

    Kilroy was here (one example)

    / oo \
    uuu U uuu

    My response to the current rage for emojis is Bill the Cat from Bloom County

    _ /|
    \' o.O '
    U ack!

  16. DMcCunney said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 12:13 pm

    .. and of course, WordPress ommiting leading spaces distorted the multi-line examples in my post. :-p

  17. Victor Mair said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 12:38 pm

    For some reason, a little boy named Gavin Thomas became enormously popular in China during the year 2018. He's the kid in the red shirt in the middle of the top row and also in the middle of the bottom row in the gallery of portraits which closes this o.p. Since those two photographs are identical, yet appear to convey slightly different emotions, I was curious to read the inscriptions on them.

    The one at the top is easy to read. It simply says "jiǎ xiào 假笑" ("fake smile"). In this photograph, it seems to convey the emotion that Gavin smeared his Mom's lipstick all over the bathroom mirror, or committed some other misbehavior for which he is sorry.

    The one at the bottom is hard to read, but is discussed by Selena in the middle of the final paragraph of the o.p.:

    "尴尬又不失礼貌的微笑" ("smile with embarrassment but without losing politeness")

    In that photograph, from the very first moment I saw it, I felt that the look on Gavin's face was that of a child who had pooped his pants and felt very bad / icky about it.

  18. Chas Belov said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 4:11 pm

    Finding the following relevant articles:

    Emojis: Cultural differences: Who knew emojis could be so fraught? Evidently, writer Andreea Stefanescu does.

    Why emoji mean different things in different cultures by Alex Rawlings, including a court case that depended on emojis.

    Searching "emoji across cultures" (without the quotes) turns up a treasure-trove of articles about the subject.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 4:15 pm

    @DMcCunney, you might try wrapping your examples in <pre> tags.

  20. Chas Belov said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 10:39 pm

    Giving <pre> a try:

    / oo \
    uuu U uuu

    _ /|
    \' o.O '
    U ack!

  21. Chas Belov said,

    February 21, 2021 @ 10:39 pm

    Nope, not an approved tag.

  22. Victor Mair said,

    February 22, 2021 @ 8:22 am

    I just noticed that my Thunderbird e-mail system has the laughing with tears emoji in it, but it is just called "laughing".

    Here is the complete list of emojis in my Thunderbird:

















    Sorry, the emojis themselves didn't come through.

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