A Heart Emoji by Any Other Name: A Brief Investigation of Flirty Emoji

Long ago, when trying to flirt with another girl looked kind of like a Sarah Waters novel but without the ghosts and tragedy, we communicated interest through loaded symbols, like giving violets to crushes. Today, we have emoji instead — for appending to the end of brunch invites, for responding to Tinder messages, for commenting on the instagram selfies of hot lesbians who live two thousand miles away. How do you choose strategically? What if a ? feels flirty to you but just friendly to your crush? Will a ? eventually get you to ? or ???? To investigate, I asked a small but enthusiastic sample size of Autostraddle staffers to weigh in.

The classic kissy-face-with-heart is a good early foray into flirting; it’s cute but not intense. Those surveyed described the vibe as “casual” or “friendly” flirtation, but “not overtly sexual.” Molly says “This is one of my favorites to flirt with because it’s nice, it’s got the wink to say, ‘hey, it’s cool, there’s no pressure here!’ and a lil heart-kiss thing to also say, ‘hey, it’s cool, I like you, you’re pretty.'” KaeLyn confirms the low-pressure nature of this emoji: “as a person in a currently monogamous relationship, I don’t feel like I’m leading someone on with a kissy face. It’s just like, ‘Love ya, babe!'” However, as Casey points out, her mom also uses it, so. If you’re going for a more flirty vibe, make sure the context makes it clear!

Very low on the flirty scale, unless combined with other emojis to make its meaning more clear. I mean, this is also the face you make when looking at a really good plate of nachos. KaeLyn calls it a “universal emoji,” noting that “friends or sexy friends or crushes or my partner might all receive this from me…in the same day even.”

A level up from the kissy face emoji! Molly likes to send this one “as a sign off to someone I’m excited to talk to again, like a “sealed with a kiss” instead of a kiss.” For femmes and other lipstick aficionados, it’s a natural fit for flirting; Vanessa notes that “I’m often wearing lipstick, so if i’m sending nudes or a thirst trap i’ll follow up with this to be like “look at my mouth.” It is hard to imagine someone’s mom sending this (or if they did, you would wish they had not), so, there’s that!

“This is like, you’re making my pulse beat faster. I’d reply to a thirst trap or sext with this one.” – KaeLyn

This choice was surprisingly controversial — while many consider it unremarkable and a “default,” I have always felt it to be the most Serious heart emoji choice, maybe comparable to a red rose as opposed to a more chill and less romantic daisy bouquet. Coming in at the other end of the spectrum, however, is Vanessa who “hates” the red heart, musing that maybe she finds it “basic.” It’s hard to imagine messing up a conversation with a red heart — it’s inoffensive for sure! — but also, maybe swing for the fences.

General consensus is that non-red hearts are for friendship, although Stef made the mysterious assertion that blue and purple hearts are “more serious.” I have personally always felt like the purple heart was perfect for sending to queer friends in queer friendships; see violets reference above. Special attention should also be paid to the black heart, which our respondents noted was “a kinky heart,” good if you’re sexting someone else into kink or just in general if you’re a Scorpio.

I’ll be honest: no one is sure what this means. Best guess is probably “exclamation point with a heart;” not totally sure what emotion that would correspond with, but it does sound like a nice one. From KaeLyn, another take: “It could be blood. I mean, I could get into that.”

“This heart is full of chocolate.” – Stef

This is a sweet, wholesome emoji designed to turn your text message into a missive delivered by turtledoves and wrapped in satin ribbon. Virtually none of us have ever used it, except for Vanessa, who relies on it “if i’m FLIRTING with someone and want to be very clear we are FLIRTING.” If you’re trying to flirt with Vanessa or someone similar, you know what you have to do.

This is not a particularly flirty heart but it is very cute for reciprocal affection and would be very sweet if you and your crush had just exchanged a flurry of compliments or feelings for each other. Like aw, same!!

Does this signify a trail of hearts rising into the air, which is a cute but ultimately kind of mystifying image, OR is it both of your hearts next to each other or possibly orbiting around each other? The second interpretation is much more endearing and makes this a very cute thing to send your crush!

Don’t like this emoji. It’s rhetorically unclear! It’s supposed to be ‘growing,’ but is that effectively visually communicated? I don’t trust it; do not recommend.

A foundational icon; a symbol that dates back, it feels, to the earliest echoes of human memory. On a literal level, that somebody made your eyes widen with interest; on a figurative level, maybe you’re ~making eyes~. KaeLyn’s more lyrical interpretation is that this is for “when someone’s hotness is so hot that you’re kind of embarrassed for yourself but also WOW. I think it’s kind of chaste, too, like AVERT THINE EYES.” Anyways, this means you think someone is hot and want to make out with them, and is what you respond to someone’s great selfie with (although not quite enthusiastic enough as a response to a nude).

A bold and divisive choice. Our informal survey respondents found this choice “enthusiastic,” and perhaps “overly enthusiastic” — one person described it as reminiscent of someone “just in a very sloppy place with their love and affection… overall lacking in subtlety.” Even those who are in favor of the tongue emoji confirm that it is reserved for sexting, not flirting. It’s a lot! It’s a gamble, is all we’re saying, but maybe you like to live on the edge.

Forthrightness is a virtue, and that is the gift of the water droplets emoji. As Carmen says, “it literally works for everything, and it’s never misconstrued.” It’s very assertive flirting — leaving these under someone’s selfie is a bold move! — but sometimes that’s the energy you want to bring. Once you’re in that neighborhood its applications are near limitless. As Vanessa says, “someone sends you a nude? Throw some of these in (along with copious all caps compliments). You sent a nude? Follow up with these. Someone sexts you? Yes. You’re excited for a date? Wonderful. You wanna say “I wanna squirt all over your hot bod”? So weird, this WORKS TOO!”

Honorable Mentions:

“This means I WANT YOU BAD. always in a sequence of 3 or more.” — Audrey

Have you ever seen somebody so hot it was an emergency?

Alaina describes this as a “classic sexting emoji.” Does it mean you’re being bratty? Does it mean you’re being a hot, mean top? Guess your crush will find out!

Please feel free to vociferously disagree with our takes and defend your texting habits! For extra credit, use this terrifying emoji builder to create your ideal and share with the class.

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1142 articles for us.


  1. i’m a big fan of the honorably mentioned siren emoji. hotness is always an emergency

  2. as a professional sexter, it’s honestly a crime that no one mentioned the fire emoji OR the puppy emoji. both v underrated.

  3. I could not resist the terrifying emoji builder challenge, but possibly took the terrifying part of it too literally?

    Yes, that is many hands pulling a featureless face into the fiery pits of hell. For best results, view while humming O Fortuna.

  4. I also use purple hearts for queer friendship love, blue for healing or positive vibes, and then the sparkly glittery one for extra enthusiasm, femme friends, people who like glitter, if I’m feeling sparkly or like my love is shining an extra amount (that one is very versatile). I mostly use these and a few of the others to mean various levels of friendship love, so maybe I just don’t know how to flirt….

  5. This is all very informative! I most often send hearts in the ??? (pink-purple-blue) formation to say “isn’t being bisexual awesome?” to my bi friends, so I guess it’s not overtly romantic, although low-key flirting with your friends strikes me as VERY bisexual. Therefore, maybe ??? is an invitation to embrace the overlap.

  6. I once sent the upside down face emoji when chatting with a girl because I panicked and worried I wasn’t being flirty enough, so thank you for this. I’m a terrible millennial, I’ve literally never sexted or sent a nude, I find the whole thing bewildering.

  7. Al(aina), thank you so much for ruining my life, my mother often sends me that purple devilish-grin one after making a particularly bad pun and I did not need to have “classic sexting emoji!” in my brain for that. :P

    I actually use the hearts, heart-eyes, blowing-kiss emoji etc. way less often than my straight female friends. Because the first such friend I came out to then ghosted me and I don’t want any of the rest of them getting flirty vibes I don’t intend. Sigh.

  8. Thank you for this guide! I keep saying that I don’t understand emoji, and I’ve spent the past several months trying to interpret messages from the mujer (at first I wrote “chica,” but I wanted to say something more powerful and sophisticated and chingona, muy chingona, and I think “mujer” captures that more) I went on two maybe-dates with back in the spring who is now in another country. Does kissy-face-with-heart mean “besos” (for which my phone keeps suggesting it) in the casual sense of a peck on the cheek with friends or in the romantic sense? What does a sunflower mean? I’m glad to see that the lipstick one is potentially more flirty… espero (e imagino).

  9. My bratty femme gf uses the ? a lot and also the ?, ?, ?, ?, and ? emojis often and she’s like the best flirty texter I’ve ever flirty texted with. I’m a big fan of ? and ? and ? anytime she sends me a pic of herself and ? and ? in general. We also had a convo once about how I’m a ? and she’s a ? so those get thrown in sometimes as like little emoji nicknames.

  10. My queer bff/romantic friend has always sent heart emoji to me. I was confused at first, but the more I got to see the usage and know her, she just prefers it over other colors. It says to me her heart is a bit dark from years of experience, but yet there is deep love. I doubt she uses it for kinky purposes? I personally use the purple heart as it’s a shade of lipstick that looks good on me and it’s a fairly queer color. I’ve also used green to be different.

  11. i mostly use emoji in conversation when i’ve just sent someone something i know they’ll hate (ie memes) BUT i do have a hat with the ? emoji bc ‘that’s what you look like when you see a pretty girl’

  12. I’ve always thought of ? as being like, swoony? Like they’re making me have dizzy hearts circling around my head. So in my mind very flirtatious

  13. Emoji language makes me feel so damn old. It’s like hanky code, but more complicated because straight people are also in on it and straight emoji language is different from gay/bi emoji language (which is probably also different from ace emoji language) and how am I supposed to remember that many meanings for one damn winking face??? WHAT HAPPENED TO WORDS? I’M GOOD AT WORDS!

  14. This is helpful but also I have been mystified by some emoji enhanced conversations I had with a friend like a year ago. I know her through our kid’s school, has a husband, don’t know if she’s queer or in an open marriage/poly or anything but I definitely picked up a vibe. She said some stuff in person about having different kinds of boundaries? that made me think she might be interested? And a bunch of her txt messages had ? and ?. I wasn’t in a place where I could get into anything, also I am personally really heavy handed and don’t do well with insinuations. But after reading this guide I’m more certain that it was flirty? Do straight people txt like this to their friends? Halp

  15. The sideways smirk is my go to! It feels a little bratty, like I know the thing I just said was forward, what are you gonna doooo about it? And for a similar vibe, I also sometimes use the angel emoji.

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