BENGALURU: A wraith is haunting our conversations. We don’t type out sentences that convey our happiness, instead we insert a smiley face, quick and easy. Face with Tears of Joy was crowned the Word of the Year, in 2015, by Oxford Dictionaries because emojis are a “nuanced form of expression, and one which can cross language barriers”.
But there Oxford got it wrong. People have lost friendships and jobs because an emoji was misinterpreted as cruelty or an insult.
Nishtha Goyal, an IT professional, recently lost her brother in an accident. “On the day of his funeral, I received a text message from a dear friend who sent a ‘sad’ emoticon. I was outraged... I found this extremely rude.” Nishtha says that her friend should have responded with some “thoughtful words”. “How long does that take?” she says, “we are no longer on good terms.”
34-year-old DV Kumar had to quit his job because of an emoji blunder. “I was working for a start-up and shared a good rapport with my boss,” he says. “We would exchange casual text messages until one day, when she was in a foul mood, I had texted her the ‘waving hand emoji’ to say a ‘Hi’ but she interpreted it as a ‘slap’.” They had had an argument the previous day over an idea and his boss thought he had sent her the smiley in anger. She demanded his resignation and he lost his job.
Emoji sent in happiness can also end in grief. Maya Rao, a UG student from a city college, was looking to do her summer internship with a production house. Her internship was almost fixed with one of the big names. “I was very happy,” she says, “and instead of choosing to formally reply to the email, I sent some happy face emojis and also a kissing emoji.” What followed next, shocked her. The boss reverted immediately cancelling the internship for unprofessional behaviour.
Regression to Hieroglyphics
Prof Ivan Mathew, a linguist at Carnegie Mellon University at Pittsburg, laments how these emojis have eclipsed language. “It is always easy to go downhill than uphill,” he says. “After a millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the stone age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.”
Bengaluru-based linguist expert Shyamala J says emoticons “seem the least interesting, funny and inventive of linguistic joys that the Internet has brought us.” She appreciates Internet memes “with their set-up of repetition, brevity and a shared contextual frame” and places it “somewhere between haiku and standup punchline”.
Alan Thomas, a linguist who teaches in a Bengaluru-based private college, finds emojis puzzling. “Sometimes, men send inscrutable emojis, particulary in the context of romance,” he says. “For instance, they extensively use the winky face with a tongue sticking out. I have no clue what it means.”