Culture & Society

Emoji Unease: What Gets Lost in Pictoral Communication

By Keyra Navas

Using the restroom is not a solitary ritual for me—that is to say, like many of my fellow youths, I sit on the throne with my cellphone in hand. Surprisingly, I don’t really engage with my phone at other times of the day; but during trips to the restroom, my phone becomes more appealing. And as I seek brief entertainment through my cellular device, I impulsively choose to go on Tinder. I enjoy browsing other singles’ photos, but more importantly, I get a kick out of people’s bios. I’ve enjoyed seeing “I can cook minute rice in 58 seconds” or “I’m on here because I got kicked out of Christian Mingle.” But then  the enjoyment ends when I come across a description that is constructed only with emoji. I don’t expect others to experience my worry, but I do want others to recognize that verbal elaboration is nearing obsolescence in day-to-day messaging.

I recall a time I matched with a seemingly agreeable young man who, unfortunately, by the end of our conversation perceived me as an emotionless being. The conversation started with the usual exchanges of “Hey” and “How’s it going?” It made its way to a discussion of our educational pursuits and aspirations. I did not find his constant use of emoji striking, considering that everyone else takes the same textual approach, but he admitted that the lack of them in my messages was strange. At first, he asked me if I was okay. I responded by affirming that everything was fine and asked why he believed something could possibly be wrong with me. Then came the million-dollar response: “Well, you’re not using emoji, so I took that as you being upset about something or perhaps being disengaged with our conversation.”

Unfortunately, this charmer was not the first person to think that there was something wrong with me. I have even had friends recommend that I send “goofier” responses. At points, I have succumbed to the social pressure of using emoji in order to seem inviting and interested.

It seems that pictograms have replaced the formerly reassuring “LOL” and “haha.” These social security mechanisms ultimately become safety blankets. They make it easier to take back audacious, even aggressive responses. For instance, I have witnessed people send a clearly insulting message and attach the eggplant emoji afterwards. Somehow, the addition of an emoji helps make insults more passive-aggressive when they might otherwise be straightforward messages of confrontation.

It is undeniable that emoji are spirited, symbolic, and succinct. What is questionable is their apparent use to replace any need to elaborate or personalize emotional states. Emoji use can require artistic as well as linguistic dexterity, but these shortcuts become a problem when I ask my 14-year-old cousin to describe to me how she feels and she sends me an emoji instead of words because, she says, it’s easier.

My intent is not to advocate the extermination of the famous poop swirl, but rather to reveal the reality that there is an overwhelming self-consciousness and pressure to entertain our message recipients in order to be appreciated, to be “understood.”

Developing abstractions through old-fashioned word usage requires the writer to understand exactly what message they want to convey. No, texting does not have to be a prim-and-proper, emotionally laborious task. If we get in the habit of expanding on our opinions, feelings, and activities by replacing an emoji with a phrase or even a simple word, it would not feel like such a tedious undertaking.

This idiom doesn’t make a lot of sense here. Rephrase to express that your mood changes, or something to indicate that you are beginning to experience the worry you mention in the next sentence.

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Art by Maura Thomas

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