No doubt it’s one of the clearest expressions of Italian culture that you can get. It’s recognized the world over. It has its own Wikipedia page. And since January 2020, when it was added to the list of characters acknowledged by the Unicode consortium, it’s had its own emoji: 🤌.
You may know it as “the Italian hand gesture.” To aesthetes who settle for nothing less than the original Italian, it’s “Che vuoi?” Some Twitter users see something more perverse. The Unicode consortium calls it “the pinched fingers emoji.”
And now it’s been analyzed by a team of academics including David Garcia, professor for computational and social sciences at the Graz University of Technology in Austria. Garcia and his colleagues used natural-language processing to analyze the contexts in which the pinched fingers emoji was used across Twitter in English, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Korean.
The goal was to better understand what the pinched fingers emoji meant to people — and how it might differ based on your background. “When we talked in the lab, we noticed we had seen it in very different contexts and with different meanings,” says Garcia. He and his team found that the emoji and the physical action behind it resonate far beyond Italy’s borders.
Of course, Garcia and his colleagues couldn’t discount Italy’s contribution to all things pinchy-fingered. “We could identify several contexts and drivers of the use of 🤌,” he says. “One is the Italian meaning to complain or express frustration, but also in general in relation to Italian culture and especially food.”
In total, the researchers identified 24 different potential interpretations of the pinched fingers emoji, each of which was deployed to demonstrate a different meaning depending on its context. Schoolkids across the globe used it to encapsulate the late-night stress they felt at hitting deadlines. Cultural commentators used it to symbolize an impassioned chef’s kiss when talking about the quality of a book, TV show, piece of music, or work of art.
Weirder still were the K-Pop fandoms, who used it in lieu of a soon-to-be implemented emoji, hand with index finger and thumb crossed. That symbol, which is known more colloquially as “finger heart”, has been used by South Korean celebrities for almost a decade as a sign of belonging and support. Whether K-Pop fans abandon pinched fingers in favor of the actual finger heart emoji will become clearer in a few months’ time, when the latest Unicode update, containing Emoji 14.0, is rolled out to devices.
Whichever emoji K-Pop fans decide to use, they’ll have an outsized impact on official records of the use of such symbols, according to those who monitor emoji usage on social media. “At Emojipedia, we’ve seen other prominent examples of this within K-Pop alone via our own Twitter research,” says Keith Broni, Emojipedia’s deputy emoji officer, “with the purple heart and green heart being used to a momentous degree by fans of the bands BTS and NCT, respectively.”
Then there’s the crypto bros. The rubbing of the thumb across the fingers in a pinched motion is a universal sign of wanting or having money — and few people like to flaunt their wealth more than the newly minted generation of cryptocurrency millionaires. “I was surprised when we saw a topic on our model clearly related to cryptocurrencies,” admits Garcia. “I knew that 🤌 can be used to talk about money, and that cryptocurrencies are a hot topic lately, but I never expected to see it so consistently appearing in computational analysis like ours.”
The rise of the pinched fingers emoji has echoed a broader shift in our use of emoji during the pandemic. Garcia and his colleagues investigated the ratio of hand-based emoji usage compared to face emoji deployment since the beginning of 2019. They found that hand-based emoji have taken up an increasingly higher proportion of all emoji use post-pandemic than pre-pandemic, when compared to face-based emoji.
On English-language Twitter, for instance, the ratio of hand emoji to face emoji increased 24 percent after March 2020. That’s unsurprising, says Luca Vullo, an author, director, and filmmaker from Sicily, Italy, who produced a 2012 documentary called La Voce Del Corpo (or The Voice of the Body).
“The idea of this kind of emoji is to put into the conversation the emotional part, and to understand the real intention of the person,” says Vullo, who also runs classes for actors, including those at the U.K.’s National Theatre, about how to gesticulate to add meaning. “It’s necessary to hear the voice of the body.”
And that’s more important than ever when we’re wearing masks that cover much of our faces, and therefore shield most of our expressions. Before undertaking the study, Garcia was sitting in a barbershop in Austria when he first began thinking about the reason that hand-based emoji have become more popular. “I noticed hand signs replacing facial expressions when people interacted in shops or public transportation,” says Garcia.
“One of the reasons why we look into social media data is because it often reflects our offline behavior.”
“One of the reasons why we look into social media data is because it often reflects our offline behavior,” he continues. “We thought this could be happening online: that hand emojis are growing in frequency when compared to face emojis.”
One place that the proportion of gesture-based emoji didn’t increase when compared to more expressive facial emoji? Japan, where public mask-wearing was comparatively widespread even before the pandemic.
The way in which the emoji was integrated into posts, and the emotions it tried to express, also differed significantly across the world. “We noticed quite a variation in the sentiment of the context of the use of the emoji, from very positive in Japanese to quite negative in Italian and Spanish, fitting what we noticed when looking at the text” that accompanied the emoji, says Garcia.
That too isn’t news to Vullo, whose flamboyant Italian gesticulations — seriously, check out his website — run the risk of misinterpretation elsewhere around the globe. “Every population around the world has a specific code and a specific grammar,” Vullo says. “It’s impossible to think that everyone can understand Italian gestures around the world.”
Garcia also found the meaning of symbols like pinched fingers were harder to pin down than face emojis. “Emoji can be a way to measure emotional expression across languages, but only if we focus on pretty simple facial expressions of emotions,” he says. “More nuanced signs like 🤌 tell us a story of variety.”