Fun or Frivolous? Rethinking the Way I Use Emojis

Collage of different images featuring emojis.

I recently saw an interview with actor Cillian Murphy, during which he’s asked what his favorite emoji is. He replies, “I prefer spelling words correctly.” 

The writer in me wants to believe I’m on the same page but, the truth is, after viewing this video, I responded with the crying laughing emoji which, incidentally, I’ve come to learn is reserved only for aging millennials and mothers (I am both). And, while Cillian might exist as the exception in this regard, I look to my own love of language and wonder why I am so inclined to use these icons in its place. Emoji thumbs up or thumbs down? It turns out, it’s really not that simple.

With 118 new emojis, including a lime and a phoenix – two visuals you might not have realized you needed in your life – set to join the almost 4,000-strong catalog, the emoji remains a key form of modern communication. Whether by way of conveying a tone or simply “reacting” to messages, the emoji has come to define our digital interactions, and with that comes the question: Does the emoji add or take away from our communication?

Evolving from the very first emoticon “☺”, it seems these small faces began as a way to signal the context of a message. It added a human element that was missing in a new digital era. Since their humble inception in 1982, these symbols have evolved but the premise remains the same – they make virtual exchanges feel more personal. They offer the cyber equivalent to a smirk or an eye roll. In this sense, emojis might best be described as a supplement to language as opposed to any kind of replacement. Where it’s difficult to read tone via text-speak, a small yellow face smiling back signals “all is well,” allowing me to leave my paranoia at the door.

I look at my own use of emojis and how I might add a casual wink to reassure there are no hard feelings. But perhaps problematically, I might also weave in an emoji where there is an underlying tone of annoyance. By inserting a thumbs-up alongside a blunt message, I can disguise any indignation, leaving the emoji entirely disingenuous in its use, or at least my use of it.

This is where the emoji can get messy – when we look at its use beyond anything but its literal sense.

Unlike human gestures, there are many emojis that can be interpreted differently, particularly for younger generations. Where the peace sign would signal good vibes to me, it can be used to indicate that a texter is feeling exasperated with a conversation. Or the skull, which to me symbolizes death, might mean I’m dying with laughter to someone ten years younger. 

This ambiguity leaves us all at risk of mixed messages, but for now my mom-friends and I are safe in our digital bubble of peeking monkeys and tears of laughter.

At their core, emojis are convenient. This is fundamental in understanding how they are used. I wonder, how many awkward messages I have salvaged with an emoji? How many conversations have I ended in the least aggressive way by using some pointless symbol? They are the ideal get-out-of-jail-free card. They’re just enough to show I’ve taken the time to reply but require the least amount of effort. When I can’t think of the right words, there’s a symbol that can better sum it up.

And perhaps that is ok. I might not always have the right words – but my worry is that I will stop searching for them. That I allow anonymous icons to do the talking for me.

The best version of myself – the Cillian in me – would refrain from using emojis. She would dedicate paragraphs of human sentiment to every correspondence. But the realist in me–the one trying to navigate multiple WhatsApp groups, Facebook chats and countless other notifications–has come to rely on those little yellow faces to save time and help her out of the occasional jam. They allow me to keep in contact with people I might otherwise lose touch with. I think of one friend in particular who I only communicate with in meme and emoji and, the truth is, I still value these interactions.

Just as emojis have evolved, so too has my opinion of them. Disguised in frivolity, they have come to serve a real purpose in modern communication. They provide another strand of human connection and, as long as I maintain genuine human connection outside of the digital world, it appears emojis need not signal the demise of communication but simply a friendly face to coincide with it.

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