If you’ve tweeted, posted to Instagram, or texted in the past few days—and who among us hasn’t?—you’ve likely included at least one brightly-colored symbol in your missive, if not a conga line of them. Maybe you tapped the one your phone suggested; possibly you swiped through a slew of options, looking for just the right accent to your communiqué. Perhaps you have a few favorites (! ! !) that you use automatically to emphasize your point, or, increasingly, to make your point, without any cumbersome words.
But how often do you stop to wonder if inserting those emojis before you hit send helps or hinders your communication? As we grow increasingly reliant upon them, it’s worth considering whether these cute visual cues have a point.
The origins of the emoji
It’s difficult to imagine a world without emojis, though they weren’t widely adopted until 2011. According to Facebook, roughly 5 billion emojis are sent on Facebook Messenger alone every day.
Emojis are the brainchild of Shigetaku Kurita, an engineer at the Japanese phone company NTT Docomo. Tasked with finding a way for subscribers to quickly read information and communicate with one another on a very basic mobile web platform, his solution was a lexicon of 176 icons called emoji—a combination of the Japanese “e,” meaning picture, and “moji,” meaning letter, or character. If emojis seemed groundbreaking by the time they went global, it’s only because most of us didn’t know that this new language of characters and symbols had its roots in Japanese history as far back as the Edo era.
Though some may worry that emojis limit communication and expression, they were created to make things better, conversation-wise. According to Kurita, the impetus for emojis stemmed from the many ways clear communication was hindered by the first mobile phones. “And looking at the tendencies of messaging in Japanese society…miscommunication may arise due to the brevity of the message. You don’t know why someone sent you a certain message. A person becomes wary or even angry because of it. These were experiences I myself and the mass community shared. We thought emoji would alleviate this sort of problem. That’s why we made it,” Kurita told Vice News.
A broader goal of emojis was to create a universal language using pictograms. Kurita was inspired by the international signage for bathrooms (created in Japan) as well as the pictograms used at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games to make it easier for foreigners to get around to the right events.
As for why emojis have become so popular, Kurita explains: “Emoji enriches communication and makes it more enjoyable.”
You say tomato, I say tomahto
When it comes to adding emojis to texts, the yellow smiley face in all its variations is the most popular. The “weary face,” (more “wail” than “weary” IMO) is the one used most often on Twitter by Americans, the British, and Canadians. (If emojis are any indication, we should all move to France or Japan where the top-Tweeted emojis are a heart with an arrow through it and a fluttering heart, respectively.)
For a fascinating glimpse of real-time emoji use on Twitter, look no further than emojitracker.com. Here in the U.S., we’re partial to the “” emoji, alternately defined as “Laughing So Hard I’m Crying” or “Tears of Joy.” And therein lies a problem. If half of us thinks we’re sending an emoji that means “I’m laughing until I cry,” and the other half understands that symbol to be “tears of joy,” how useful is that emoji after all? It begs the question: how many other emojis mean different things to different people?
Emojis can certainly make some messages easier to grasp at a glance, but it can’t be ignored that they don’t always give the right impression. A friend told me about her own experience when her sister was confronting a health crisis: “She would send the family updates about her condition and her test results, and, after each piece of bad news, she would insert an emoji.” The problem? “She thought she was sending the crying emoji, but she was sending us the laughing until I’m crying one. It was so jarring and made the experience of reading her emails so bizarre, to read this bad news and then see this laughing emoji. It made us wonder about her emotional state and mental health. Finally, I told her. Now she uses the face with the tears raining down. She’s always been a bit dramatic.”
Another problem with emojis is especially ironic given they were created as a universal texting lexicon: They still don’t reliably translate across different operating systems. I have an iPhone/Android marriage which renders my use of emojis for domestic texting pointless. Emojis sent to my husband come through on his phone as a series of question marks with black boxes around them. Whatever context or humor I mean to send with my messages is quite literally lost in translation.
Even when emojis come through as intended, they don’t always hit the mark. Consider this scenario: After my father passed away, a friend sent me a text that read, “I’m sorry about your father… .” I’m sure she meant well and was sincerely trying to convey her condolences. The fact is, sad face emoji feels awfully insensitive when you’ve just lost a parent. Game cancelled today… sure, insert the “sad face” emoji… Bombed the job interview? Same. Death in the family? There’s simply no emoji that works in that context.
Emojis over substance
It’s not so much that emojis in and of themselves aren’t appropriate. The real problem is that they’re a shortcut, a convenient substitute for the harder work. Sending an emoji-laden text conveys the impression of thought and attention, but they are rarely, if ever, as specific and intentional as a thought-out written message would be. It’s too easy these days to convey a sentiment or gesture by picking a quick emoji—or five—and hoping for the best.
In more mundane conversations, problems arise when we’re not sure whether to take emojis at face value. I plead guilty to adding a smiley face to text messages both when I’m truly happy about something and when I want to convey a sense of being happy when I’m feeling anything but. And, there’s no denying that emojis bear silent, smiley witness to an enormous number of passive aggressive text messages. Is this merely guilt by association or can we lay part of the blame on those eager little faces? It’s awfully tempting, in the moment, to try to lessen the impact of a message that’s critical (and that we’re going to send nonetheless) by following it up with a smiley face. Or, worse yet, a smiley face blowing a kiss.
The issue I have with emojis goes beyond what they may literlly be doing to any single conversation. I worry that emojis are just another sign that we humans are spending less time and effort on connecting and building meaningful relationships. Is sending me a sad face emoji when my father dies an appropriate substitute for a handwritten condolence note? It’s not. And yet, increasingly, we’re all guilty of some version of this.
We may feel connected when we share an emoji-enabled text exchange with a friend, but chances are that interaction was brief, distracted and, in the end, not very fulfilling. By enabling–even encouraging–text messages on every possible subject, emojis may be limiting the number of in-person conversations we’re having. As Sherry Turkle notes in her book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age, “The problem comes if these ‘reminders’ of intimacy [i.e. text messages] lead us away from intimacy itself.” In other words, sending a message to wish someone a happy birthday using emojis that represent cake, balloons, and bouquet of flowers is not the same thing as baking a cake, gifting actual balloons, or sending flowers. It may feel like a special, dressed up text message—and, in a way, it is—but it’s also like saying, “I meant to buy you flowers, but I didn’t.” Put that way, it may be time to give up the notion that emojis are an adequate way to recognize and celebrate someone we care about.
Faces vs. face time
It used to be that we felt a certain discomfort about sharing emotions and difficult conversations on devices—and rightly so in many cases. Remember the Seinfeld episode when Jerry scolded Elaine for inquiring about a friend’s father’s health by cell phone? That scenario feels dated now, but until a few years ago, social mores forced us into face-to-face conversations about delicate topics, from giving notice to breaking off an engagement. Today? Not so much.
Arguably, the most helpful emojis are the ones that convey a state of mind, tone, or feeling, as long as they’re perceived as intended. In this way, they approximate the hints we give and receive in person. Emojis can help us understand where to file a conversation, what category it falls into. Without tone of voice and facial clues to go on, it’s easy to misread and misinterpret text messages. Emojis can certainly alleviate misunderstandings by signaling the senders’ intent when the words are ambiguous. Yet, as Turkle argues, these longer, messier, face-to-face conversations that start with, “I don’t understand you,” “I didn’t mean to hurt you,” or “Let’s find a way to sort this out,” are crucial to human relationships. We need to have them if we want to forge real connections.
As with any language, there are clumsy and elegant ways to make a point with emojis. So, where does this leave us? First and foremost, bone up on your emoji literacy and make sure that your favorite emojis mean what you think they mean. Next, be straightforward in your communications from the get-go, so emojis don’t have to spend all their time cleaning up after you. And, finally, every time you inject an emoji into a conversation, make sure you’re not asking too much of that little yellow face. If an emoji is loving, congratulating, apologizing, or crying on your behalf, it’s working too hard. That’s a signal that it’s time for you to show up instead.