Exactly one year ago, I sent my first-ever complaint email. I am not one for leaving negative reviews or engaging in cranky comments or sharing feedback with customer service agents — not because I’m a saint but because I’ve never cared enough to direct my energy in that direction.
But, overcome with emotion, I wrote to The New York Times after finding an emoticon in my “Morning Briefing” email.
Yes, the humble, ubiquitous emoticon.
I don’t remember when my aversion to digital pictographs began. I do remember cheerfully peppering my first emails with an array of happy faces, sad faces and tongue-out smileys. But when texting became more popular, around the time I received my first cellphone in my late teens, my love for words sent me reeling away. For more than a decade, I tried to avoid emoticons at all cost.
Then, emoji entered the conversation. What’s the difference between emoticons and emoji?
Emoticons — “emotional icons” — are composed of punctuation marks, letters and numbers. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the emoticon was borne of a joke delivered via an old-school online message board at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. The pictographs have been popular ever since.
Emoji, from the Japanese e, “picture,” and moji, “character,” are the colorful expressions of emotion via cartoonified smileys, food and drink, activities, objects and so much more. These pictographs were invented in 1999, inspired by manga art and Japanese writing’s kanji. They remained largely in Japan until 2007, when Apple included an emoji keyboard in the first iPhone to tempt Japanese users. North Americans quickly became addicted; today, the introduction of new emoji makes national headlines.
I admit: Occasionally, I employed an emoji or two in my own digital exchanges, from the playful lobster via Gchat to the simple heart (or many hearts, as the case may be) via texts.
Still, I tried to resist falling further into the fray. I saw emoji as a crutch, using pictures to convey complex ideas that words were designed to express. Humans have used language for thousands of years, I reasoned: Why should we devolve into communicating with pictographs?
Philosophical arguments aside, emoji and emoticons mostly overwhelmed me. No digital communication was safe: Emoji found their way into my friends’ texts, my boss’s Instagram and my grandpa’s happy birthday email. I found myself in group WhatsApp exchanges conducted entirely in cat-face smileys, dancing women in red and the infamous poo.
Some pictorial preferences were cute and funny, but others were more layered and less well-meaning. Digital exchanges are already notorious for generating confusion due to lack of context, and these pictographs can deepen miscommunication or passive aggression. Seriously, think about it: Just what is that winky face supposed to mean?
Emoticons and emoji continued to grow stronger, demonstrated best in 2015, when Oxford Dictionaries announced the emoji known as “Face with Tears of Joy” as the Word of the Year.
“Whether it was Hillary Clinton soliciting feedback in emoji or ongoing debates about the skin tone of smiley faces, emoji have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive and obsessively immediate,” the OD team wrote in the press release.
“You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st century communication,” said Casper Grathwohl, OD president. “It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps — it’s flexible, immediate and infuses tone beautifully.”
This was a thoughtful justification, but I remained unconvinced. My frustration was building. I savored the safe harbor of good books, magazines and newspapers.
So, on that cold mid-March morning, when I found a rogue emoticon — a winky face, no less — in my “Morning Briefing,” before I had finished my first cup of coffee, I had a visceral reaction. My heart beat faster, and my cheeks reddened.
That winky was the last straw.
“I have a shallow request: Please, no more emojis,” my email began. Looking back at my words for the first time a year later, I can still sense my quiet seething. It concluded, “If you want to insert that extra ounce of irony, youth, or condescension (whatever that wink is supposed to mean), please use your words. ;)”
As soon as I clicked send, I felt regret. One emoticon in one newsletter did not warrant the full force of 10-plus years of irritation.
Chris Stanford, the briefing writer, responded in less than 10 minutes.
“Point taken, although I would respectfully argue that if there were ever a time for irony, this was it.”
In the past year, my perspective on emoticons and emoji has evolved from aversion to acceptance. Maybe I needed to throw a small tantrum to realize I was taking them too seriously. Maybe I needed to research this column to discover that there are emoji for sweet potato and broccoli — my husband’s and my favorite foods and silly nicknames for each other. (Sorry, Erik: Get ready for an emoji storm.)
I still rarely use emoticons and emoji, but I can appreciate their place in digital conversation. Words, clean and clear, can seem harsh on their own. With much of our communication taking place in the absence of a human face, emoticons and emoji can be the substitute for expressions, tones, body language — emotion.
And today, as tribal parties line up against each other for the next fight, the better we can emote with each other, the closer we may be to understanding each other and uniting. <3