Your Emojis Do Not Mean What You Think They Do

(Photo by Kelvin Yan via Unsplash)



Umberto Eco warned us. Back in 1976, he asked readers to “face the problem of the so-called iconic signs.” After all, facial expressions create “easily recognizable semantic units.”

Easily recognizable, maybe. But not easily interpreted. We now add little cartoons to our messages as though they are simple, only to be confounded by the latest revision. “Keep up,” I imagine a nineteen-year-old snapping at me.

In 2015, the face laughing so hard tears flew from its round cheeks was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year. Now it is over, ready for that sad little drinks party at which your colleagues pretend to regret your retirement.

Computers favor verbal signs, I read in an otherwise inscrutable paper. Something about “electronic paralanguage.” Why this should be, when computers make words so easy to retrieve, spell-check, reformat, cut, paste, and save, I do not know. Nonetheless, the French use the ❤️ symbol four times as often as anybody else, and this is such a pleasant confirmation of stereotype that I refuse to fact-check it.

I use the ❤️ too—more often since I learned that Facebook does not deem the mild, thumbs-up Like to be significant. The Facebook algorithm, like pop culture, grants preference to stronger emotions: love, caring, rage, and mirth. Diffidently, I mentioned this on the TCR site, since we have such a scant budget that we lean on Facebook to distribute our short essays. My awkward, heartfelt plea (“If you like us, love us”) received lots of . . . Likes.

People do not read.

I do not read, not as thoroughly as I should. Social media has trained us to react in glyphs, and you do not need to go far into a post before you can pick your glyph. Also, the alphabet soup of corporations that owns our souls started us off with only a handful of responses, thus constraining our emotional lives. How do I react to a plea for social justice that details an atrocity—with Angry Face rage over the atrocity or heart-hugging compassion for its victims? Will a Wow confine itself to wonderment, or could it be taken to mean I cannot believe you just posted that? Why can I not be touched and also amused? Where are delight, fond envy, wistfulness, and mild irritation, not to mention funks and reverie, the sense of doom that should greet most of the news cycle, the terror that is the only appropriate response to climate crisis, and the giddy elation that lets us transcend?

After resisting emojis for years, I slap them on willy-nilly, a quick nod that lets a text’s sender know I adore them and in an ideal world would write a long and thoughtful response. We are all too busy, and pictograms are fast and can be dismissive and friendly at the same time, ending an exchange that might otherwise ping-pong for far too long.

But now I am told that the smiley face itself is not the least bit friendly. It is patronizing and passive-aggressive.

Wait. I have heard these words before. That time it was a harmless little dot called a period that became “passive-aggressive” when used in a text. Are the nineteen-year-olds perhaps a little quick to feel passively aggressed? I do some quick research (the kind that makes people pretend they understand epidemiology in ten minutes) and find that even the emoji designated as Neutral “perfectly fits with the seriously passive-aggressive vibes it throws out.”

The young are perhaps sensing the hostility they continue to earn.

Texts were supposed to be simple, not land mines of explosive punctuation. Now the symbols within them, designed as a universal shorthand, have layers of extra coding nobody tells you until it is too late. Like gang colors or the etiquette of the aristocracy, this is a dangerous complication. The grinning emoji in a cowboy hat that just looks goofy and a little retro to me? To the nineteen-year-old, it means that someone is putting on a front but miserable inside, tears-of-a-clown style. The skull and crossbones anyone would reach for to signal death or hazard? To the nineteen-year-old, it means you are laughing so hard you are dying with amusement. The frowny face that looks frustrated? A young woman who is in fact nineteen tells The Wall Street Journal that it is more like a pained sigh because you find someone so sexually attractive, you are frustrated not to be with them.

The core meanings remain, I notice: dying with laughter, frustrated by arousal. But the implications can go terribly awry. Granted, so can the most standard emoji. Who decided they should blush, when that is one of the few things only White people do well? And how is it that the innocent hard-boiled egg was disappeared to make the salad emoji vegan-friendly—and we are about to roll out a biologically impossible Pregnant Man to demonstrate inclusivity—but there is still a buck-toothed yellow happyface with heavy black glasses?

I continue my research.

Thrillist says “the Peace Sign comes out when the person you’ve been texting feels fed up, or ignored, or otherwise exasperated by the way you’re communicating with them—which happens shockingly often through texting.” Indeed. The “Upside-Down Smiley is the embodiment of passive-aggression: seemingly friendly until you take a closer look.” Head-Rub Girl is for when you “literally can’t” stand what your friend is saying; the Zzz emoji indicates yawning boredom; the Schoolhouse calls out everything from bad grammar to bad science. Those, I get. Also Scratching Chin Guy, whose puzzlement adds such understated sarcasm. But Clapping Hands and Thumbs Up are aggressive? Someone had better tell the corporate folks on LinkedIn.

Or not. Because the fun of all this is knowing, so you can roll your eyes at those who are clueless. Which seems a little, well, passive-aggressive.

I like the playfulness, the creativity of layering in all the nuance the emoji-makers left out. But in-group slang should stay in the in-group, not be used to penalize the others. Besides, that defeats your purpose. It also feels a little highschool. But wait—nineteen-year-olds just left high school, which could explain a lot.

At least they are ironic again, wielding sarcasm like a splitting axe, cleanly dividing the generations. I worried about their sweet predecessors, the ones who seemed hungry for their elders’ approval, liked their mom’s playlist, and felt waves of nostalgia at age twenty. On the other hand, sarcasm should be paired with a sturdy ego (dish out and take), or it sounds petulant and precious. Maybe the coach who added smiley faces to her emails was not being patronizing, just encouraging, and maybe a little more emotional IQ will let you fathom that.

A germane anthology contains a chapter titled “Emoticons: Digital Lingua Franca or a Culture-Specific Product Leading to Misunderstandings?” That is why I am so cranky. We stripped language down this far and we still cannot communicate? At last check, ninety-two percent of online consumers used emojis—and that was in 2015. The vocabulary (iconography?) keeps growing, confounding the original goal of boiling down everyday communication, and the nuances tangle. So much for eliminating confusion.

As a society, we are going to have to cut each other some slack pretty soon, if we hope to have any common ground at all.

Besides, even nineteen-year-olds will have to feel their way into using the newest emojis. There are an awful lot of edgy possibilities for Melting Face and the sexy Biting Lip, not to mention crowning someone king, and the Salute is not likely to be used to convey loyal, disciplined obedience.

When he was asked what was wrong with the charming little tears-of-laughter emoji, a young man told the WSJ reporter that it was (shudder) basic, and he will not even respond to anyone who uses it without irony. “I told my best friend if I ever send her the laughing emoji, she needs to know that I need help,” he added. “Call 911. I am in danger.”

We all are.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.