A Timeline of My Personal Relationship with Emoticons
- 1994 or so: I see this image :) for the first time—probably in an AOL chat room—and understand it pretty much immediately. I find it clever and economical, and as someone who always carried a fondness for the traditional smiley face seen on buttons and stickers, finding opportunities to integrate this simple, functional ASCII version into my online communication proves easy.
- 1995: My vocabulary of these glyphs expands to include :( ;) :/ :D and more, I learn that their proper name as a group is “emoticons,” and my deployment of emoticons in email and IMs—a deployment forever earnest and unencumbered by self-examination—rapidly reaches a fever pitch.
- 1996: A gender gap emerges in emoticon use among my friends, i.e. the female contingent starts laying the smileys on heavy, leaving fifteen-year-old me with no choice but to dismiss emoticons as hopelessly “for girls” and run the other direction.
- ca. 1997–2007: I still avoid emoticons pretty diligently, though now for a more high-flown reason: because they’re “not serious” and therefore would undermine the deadly serious air I’m working so hard to cultivate by way of blog posts about the sorry state of the mid-decade Lakers and disappointing cookware. Throughout this span, my “internet text”—however casual the context—is pretty much indistinguishable from the formal text that I write for classes, clients, and cover letters, i.e. it’s all equally staid and flat.
- 2008-ish: Something funny happens to the way I use exclamation points in emails, web comments, and these “text messages” that I find myself writing more and more in lieu of talking to people on the phone: they (exclamation points) start showing up at the end of nearly every sentence that carries any risk at all of being interpreted as sarcastic. Sentences that I would never have considered deserving of the enthusiasm conveyed by an exclamation point if written in a formal letter or essay—and that never would have inspired me to raise my voice if I spoke them aloud—suddenly qualify for the exclamation point owing to this risk. Let me show you what I mean.
- Nice shirt, dude.
- Nice shirt, dude!
Which of those two sentences do you trust more?
SIDEBAR: Sarcasm in Writing
Between our emails, text messages, and social media missives, we are now carrying out a huge share of our ordinary daily personal communication in writing, and this is the first time in all of human history that this has ever been the case. For bazillions of years, the only kind of personal communication that our species knew was the face-to-face kind. The ironclad condition that people had to be physically together in order to communicate was the condition in which our species evolved, and our language with it. It should therefore come as no surprise that we came to rely on the nonverbal dimensions of communication—body language, facial expression, tone of voice—as crucial ingredients of every exchange, at least as important as the words themselves. After all, long before there were words, our ancestors had established, out of pure necessity, a elaborate nonverbal vocabulary (if you and your Homo erectus buddies were hanging out around the fire one night and one of them suddenly took on a look of terror and started jumping up and down and screaming, you’d probably think to turn your heads to see what he was seeing, and fast). Words came later, and in the historical perspective look more like a fine tuning of communication than like the breakthrough itself. For a contemporary and readily accessible analog to our pre-linguistic situation, you need only study the rest of the animal kingdom (though of course, in many cases, their means of communication are more complex than they appear).
Now, in writing, we necessarily miss out on body language and facial expression. We have to be willing to let go of those dimensions of communication if we want to communicate in writing at all, and we did, long ago. As to the third crucial nonverbal element, tone: it’s not as if there’s no way of conveying tone in a written statement, provided that the statement is meant sincerely. Read a sentence in an email from your mom—a sentence that you can safely assume is sincere—and you can probably imagine the tone of voice she would have spoken it in. However, the development of sarcasm—a phenomenon wherein the actual meaning of a statement is the opposite of its literal meaning—confounds this idea terribly, as, in the simplest of scenarios, a sincere statement and its sarcastic inverse will appear identical on paper, the difference hinging completely on the tone of the spoken delivery. You can imagine both a sincere and a sarcastic delivery for “nice shirt, dude” right this second with no guidance from me, simply because you’re a product of a culture that understands this stuff. You’d have no trouble sorting out which was which. Since sarcasm is as old as the hills and our culture seems to become more saturated with it as time goes by (proving this gets incredibly arduous, but it’s not like you don’t know what I’m talking about), it now becomes clear what sort of trouble we’re in: our use of sarcasm in communication and our use of writing in communication are increasing simultaneously, and we have no way of managing the former by way of the latter. We can neither purposefully imbue a written statement with sarcasm in a foolproof way, nor, more alarmingly, can we hedge against the potential risk of a sincerely intended statement being interpreted sarcastically. Since sarcasm is usually intended to sting (the very word comes from the Greek sarkasmos which means “to tear flesh, bite the lip in rage, sneer”), there is a pronounced danger with every written message you send of a warm intention being warped by the medium’s limitations into something quite the opposite of warm in the mind of the reader.
Here’s where our friend the exclamation point rushes to the rescue (for a while, anyway)! Sarcasm is usually dry and deadpan, and an exclamation point indicates enthusiasm! An unambiguous mark of enthusiasm will inoculate any sentence preceding it against sarcastic interpretation! So we’re golden!
Or not. My timeline continues.
- 2009-ish: Use of the exclamation point for the express purpose of guaranteeing sincerity becomes a cultural norm and a standard feature of business emails and customer-directed form emails. Accordingly, I start seeing way more exclamation points per day than ever before, and I start tiring of it, for three reasons,
- simple enthusiasm overload;
- mounting frustration with the fact that enthusiasm is the only thing it can convey—it’s got no range—and
- the growing realization that enthusiasm and sincerity are not actually the same thing.
Speaking to my third point, imagine you texted a friend to tell her you were looking to get rid of something semi-trivial, something nice but not all that nice (a duplicate record, some old magazines), and you were wondering whether she might want it, and she texted back:
Would the exclamation point in that sentence make you feel confident that she was being sincere? Or would you grit your teeth at that word “gee,” because it’s way too wholesome to carry any possibility of ever being meant sincerely? In short: if it wasn’t clear to you already, my above statement about how the exclamation point can inoculate any statement preceding it against sarcastic interpretation was full of holes. It’s just not all that simple after all.
- 2010-ish: Salvation arrives in the unlikeliest package: :)
The Emoticon Has Unique Value
At some point a couple of years ago, I found myself wanting to leave a comment on a friend’s Facebook status. The status concerned some small tragedy and I wanted to offer words of small encouragement. The smallness of it all left me facing two problems that seemed difficult to reconcile: 1. though I don’t remember what precise words I’d settled on, I knew that I was happy with them, but that they did leave a door open to the possibility of being read as sarcasm, 2. an exclamation point in this serious a setting would have been vulgar, and, quite contrary to the underlying spirit of the mark’s overuse in preceding years, would have actually risked cheapening my message. As I sat there reading over the message and pondering how to end it, I found myself smiling, both at the thought of how much I cared for my friend, and at my confidence that this was little more than a bump in the road and she would surely be just fine in time. Then I wished she could see my smile, because she might find it uplifting and smile in return. By that point, the solution was practically screaming at me.
I learned that day that the emoticon has unique value, and since then, my emoticon use has been profligate, giving 1995-me a run for his allowance money. In our collective quest (or at least my own) for a tool that could adequately convey tone in writing, I found a tool that goes a step further and conveys a more precious nonverbal communication element, and one whose absence from writing we made our peace with long ago: the facial expression. If you can stop seeing the smiley as the only emoticon (though it’s often still the most useful one), and see past the smiley’s traditional relegation to the province of kitsch, you’ll find the emoticon is something we can all use to inject real feeling and clarity into our daily torrent of written messages. Rather than the smiley being a weapon within a campaign to bulldoze over all our real emotions with a sugary, prepackaged simulation of the kind of happiness that most of us only enjoy for a few minutes here and there in our entire lives, it can be a useful vocabulary of simulations of our real emotions, to indicate what our real faces would look like if only we were right there with the message’s recipient to have the conversation in person. The key is to use them honestly. This may seem obvious, but I don’t think it is: the smiley face has been bogged down in trappings of kitsch for way too long to register immediately as a simulation of a real human smile. But it can be. It can represent any emotion you’re feeling, as long as you’re honestly feeling it. Want a sincerity indicator that’s actually unambiguous and infallible, one that will adjust to suit whatever mood you’re sincerely in at the moment while still allowing you to be writerly with your punctuation? Emoticons are the answer. Observe:
- Let me know when you get in. :)
- That sucks, man. :(
- I just get more confused every time I read it. :/
And here’s a spectacular bonus: what if you actually wanted to convey sarcasm in your writing? Emoticons FTW:
- No thanks, I don’t really like having an awesome time. :)
- Your day just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? :(
- Quantum physics totally makes sense. :/
So, what do you think? Does this fly with you? Do you use emoticons, and if so, are they context-specific? If not—if you hate them—why? And, perhaps the biggest question of all: if you’re a part of the business world, are you seeing the emoticon following the same trajectory that the exclamation point traced a few years back? Are they starting to pop up in your correspondences with co-workers? What about superiors, or better yet, clients? Let me know in the comments! And I mean that enthusiastically! :)