Say it without words

May I say right upfront that I was never a fan of emoticons? Not only was I not an early adopter when the first smiley showed up, I was a conscientious objector.

Published: 30th July 2023 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th July 2023 04:06 PM   |  A+A-

May I say right up front that I was never a fan of emoticons? Not only was I, not an early adopter when the first smiley showed up, I was a conscientious objector. Yes, I knew that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a smiling face created with a colon parenthesis? Surely if you chose your words well, your readers would know when you were being funny or loving or facetious, I thought. You didn’t need to add a squiggle at the end. 

Accordingly, I went around spelling out my deepest emotions and thoughts, and secretly looking down on people peppering their communication with winks and smiles. But I was in the minority of one. 
Because the fad refused to die. In 1999, Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita took the emoticon story further. He created 176 images that phone and pager users could employ to indicate an emotion, person, object or situation. There were icons for hearts, broken hearts and loving hearts as well as the weather (sun, snowman, umbrella), music notes, and even traffic (plane, car, tram). The characters were called emoji, from the Japanese terms for a picture (pronounced eh) and letter or character (pronounced moji). The pictographs were immediately embraced by Japanese teenagers, who saw it as a way to add an emotional subtext to their messages.

The fever caught on, across geographies and age groups. All around me, people started replacing their LOLs (which were bad enough) with smiling faces that had tears rolling down them, congratulated each other with an applause emoji and ended birthday greetings with red hearts. I didn’t realise how far the epidemic had spread till I received a message that ended with a smiling face—from my CEO. Twenty years later, I don’t remember a word of the message, but the shock of seeing that emoji in business communication is still fresh in my mind. 

In 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to its phones, Android followed suit two years later. In 2014, the White House released an emoji-laden report about the status of millennials in the US. The following year, Oxford Dictionary declared emoji the word of the year. The die was cast. The emoji, as the world’s new visual language, was here to stay. 

Eight years later, emojis are an integral part of everyday written communication. Research says four out of five people between 18 and 65 use them regularly, and 72 per cent of people between the ages of 
18 and 25 are more likely to use them rather than words to express emotion. I’ve begun a slow turnaround too. I know now that emojis have their uses. One, everyone understands the symbols, irrespective of the language they speak. Two, emojis lighten the mood and increase audience engagement. Three—and this is a biggie—they allow you to be as cryptic as you like without being rude. I realised this when a colleague asked for my opinion on a dreadful article they’d written, and I replied with a thumbs up. 

Shampa Dhar-Kamath

Delhi-based writer, editor and communication coach

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