By BRUCE DENNILL
If I’m under the deadline cosh and fielding 246 emails during my lunch-hour, 92.6% of which are non-essential, I might be blunt in reply. Add to that a sense of humour that friends would suggest is “dry” and strangers might suggest is “black as the inside of a chimney in Victorian London, at least according to the tiny orphan we shoved up there to clean it”, and the possibility of some sensitive soul taking offence at a forthright response is reasonably high.
In this situation, emojis can help.
For a full-time writer and editor, that’s not an easy notion to stomach. Often, text speak seems a voluntary reversion to illiteracy, and the pictures of little faces and creatures and spiralled piles of faeces bearing cheerful grins simply cannot communicate the depth of emotion that a well-crafted sentence can.
But they can emphasise intent, and in doing so do away with the need for a whole florid paragraph that might otherwise need to be included in order to avoid bruising someone’s sensibilities. Prime example: darkly witty repartee with a winking emoticon at the end of the sentence is friendly at best and edgy at worst, while the same sentence without the pint-sized yellow safety net might be edgy at best and character assassination at worst. In a situation where there’s risk involved – anything from hurting someone’s feelings right up to getting yourself fired (for nothing more than frivolity), not making the most of this phenomenon seems foolish.
Such a strategy is not as simple as it sounds though, as every emoji user assigns different values to the images they use. It’s a fascinating scenario – and a minefield. As you use emoji (I’m making that the plural if it isn’t already; like Jedi, using the same word for one or many), you develop your own shorthand where one size or colour of heart denotes friendly affection while another speaks of carnal urgency; or two quite similar grimaces can suggest surprise (good) or shock (bad) from their perspective.
For friends or romantic partners using the same or a similar graphic shorthand, the path is no open to swift, concise communication where a few words and an emoticon, or just a series of the latter, can effectively say everything they want to say. What is likely more common, though, is that such overlaps in understanding never get checked, and minor misinterpretations start to make things more interesting than they were necessarily intended to be right from the offset.
- Worker One includes kissing face in short email of thanks for colleagues’ hard work.
- Worker Two panics because his wife only sends kissing faces when she’s in the mood and he doesn’t know how to process this romantic inference from a person he’s never considered in that light.
- Worker Three understands that the kissing face is just a throwaway add-on and sends a brief, “Cheers” in response.
- Worker One notes the lack of emoji in Worker Three’s response and wonders if she’s been too familiar with the kissing face.
- Worker Two has scrolled through eight pages of emoji to find a combination champagne bottle and bunch of flowers that he hopes is suitably celebratory without being too familiar.
- Worker One receives Worker Two’s offering and fires off a hugging emoticon before sending off the word “Sorry” with the monkey with its hands over its eyes emoji to signify embarrassment to Worker Three.
- Worker Three is busy with something else now. He sees the message arrive, can’t figure out what needed to be apologised for and makes a mental note to query it next time he bumps into Worker One while making tea.
- Worker Two sees the hugging emoticon and feels even more awkward, convinced that there’s now an inappropriate emotional connection being suggested.
- Worker One notes that she has received no answers to her latest missives from either colleague and resolves to just skip the whole palaver next time around.
Perhaps the underlying issue is that emoji, by their nature – they’re simple illustrations of faces, or cake, or cars – cannot help but add levity to whatever sentiment they’re attached to, and perhaps half of our lives are taken up with serious matters that would be more effectively dealt with without such emotional ambiguity. That’s hardly a notion your average message writer wants to work through every time they type out a brief idea, though – after all, why invest considerable energy in getting to the nitty-gritty of an interaction when you can hedge your bets and avoid too much heaviness by bringing a child-like prop into the equation?
Answer? Emoji with fingers stroking chin, signifying thoughtfulness…