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Column: Whither communication in the age of emojis?


A month ago my daughter Josie, who is 10 going on 27, asked me if she could send a text message to her uncle Dave. She wanted to thank him for sending us a crepe pan, which I have used – at Josie’s direction – nearly every morning since its arrival.

So I gave her my phone, and off she went to her room. Fifteen minutes later, I found her still there, hunched over the device, thumbs a-blazin’.

“Are you and Uncle Dave texting back and forth? ” I asked.

“Nope. I’m just finishing up!” She tapped a few more keys, sent the message off with a soft whoop, and handed me the phone. 

I assumed she had written a rather lengthy note, at least by text standards. In fact, her message consisted of five words and one piece of punctuation (Thanks for the crepe pan!) followed by no fewer than 217 emojis.

Emojis, if you don’t know – and I didn’t, until a couple of years ago – are those little pictographic symbols you can send by text, such as a yellow smiley face or a red heart.

I myself have sent a few emojis to my wife, usually the little yellow kissing face that’s on the main menu of my phone. But Josie had somehow accessed an entire library of emojis, a dizzying array of images. 

I could decipher the meaning of some. For instance, the burrito, which looked sort of like a crepe. She had included 67 chili peppers, which made sense, because Dave’s nickname is Uncle Chili Peppers, owing to a childhood prank in which he fooled me into eating a hot pepper. I also sort of understood why she had included images of popcorn, pizza, chocolate, and cookies – her favorite foods.

But some of the emojis were simply baffling. Why the 37 little red cars? 

 “Those are for Cousin Daniel,” Josie explained cheerfully. “He’s learning to drive, right?”

“What about these things?” I said.

“Those are chicks hatching from eggs,” she explained. “They have chickens at their house. I’m just asking if the chickens have had any chicks yet.”

“What about the monkeys?”

“Oh, I just like those. They’re funny.” Josie looked at me with an expression poised somewhere between contempt and pity. “Why do you have to take everything so literally, Papa?”

Yes, why indeed? As someone who has devoted his life to writing, I couldn’t help but see Josie’s odd epistle as emblematic of our historical moment. How, exactly, did we get to the point where the very use of letters and words feels outdated? And what should those of us dedicated to the antique pleasures of word-based communication make of it?

To get to the bottom of all this, it’s probably best to go back to the beginning. 

In the beginning, there was the word.

Actually, scratch that. It’s not quite right. In the beginning, so far as we know, there weren’t actually any words. There were grunts and gestures and probably a good bit of yelling. At some point, our ancestors began scratching symbols into the dirt and painting pictures on the walls of caves.

Around the time primitive people started using tools – which occupied our hands – we developed a set of common sounds that allowed us to understand each other. Then we created abstract symbols (letters) that could be combined to represent these sounds. This led to the written word. 

Of course, various cultures used pictorial images rather than letters – the ancient Egyptians, the Sumerians, the Maya.

But the basic trend when it comes to language has been pretty steady: We’ve developed ever more sophisticated linguistic habits to help us explain – and communicate with one another in – an increasingly complex world.

That is, until about a decade ago. That’s when emojis entered the cultural lexicon, and the acceleration of their use has been breathtaking. The percentage of Americans who use emojis already stood at 74 percent four years ago. There are emoji-only social networks in development, along with a feature film. And some poor soul has translated the entirety of Moby-Dick into emoji. 

The question now is: Does the rampant proliferation of emojis represent a return to an image-based language? And if so, are we regressing when it comes to literacy?

Before I try to answer those big, scary questions, it’s important to understand how human beings talk to one another in the digital age: mostly through screens. In 2010, a Pew Research Center study revealed that teenagers use text messages more than any other form of conversation. Face-to-face interactions ranked third. 

But this isn’t a generational phenomenon. Think about your own life: How many interactions do you conduct per day on social media sites or via email or instant messages or text? How many in person?

So the real issue here is the radical shift in how we communicate. The problem we’re up against is one that psychologist Albert Mehrabian identified way back in the 1960s: It turns out that very little of our meaning is bound up in the words we speak. (Mehrabian put the figure at 7 percent.) Far more important than what we say is how we say it – tone, body language, facial expressions, and gestures. 

Because so much of this nonverbal information is lost when we communicate using devices, emojis have become a default system for conveying affect in the internet age.

When I asked the college students I teach about emojis, they talked about how much quicker and easier it is to send someone an emoji of two hands clapping than to tap out a cluster of words. 

This struck me as absurd. How long would it really take to type, “I’m so proud of you. Congrats”? But that was me thinking like a 50-year-old, not a 20-year-old who has grown up using the telegraphic shorthand of text messages.

And truth be told, my own use of emojis stems from the same impulse. I send my wife that image of a kissing face because it’s a single image that conveys the message that I miss her, I’m crazy about her, and I can’t wait to kiss her when I get home.

So why not just type those words? Or call her? Mostly because I’m on my way into class. Or I have a student waiting to see me. Or sometimes (I admit) I’m at a red light. 

My undergraduates also talk a lot about how emojis feel like a “safe” way to relate. They mean this in two ways. The first has to do with the distinct nature of internet communication. When we don’t talk face-to-face, there’s a lot more room for misunderstanding and even hostility. Emojis – bright, playful, and almost invariably upbeat – are a way to counteract that negative energy.

But emojis are also safe in another way: They allow people to communicate emotions without having to be too explicit. It’s this facet of emoji use, frankly, that I find troubling.

One student recently told me about an exchange she had with a romantic prospect who attended another college. He sent her a text one Saturday night asking if she wanted to hang out (he included a wine bottle emoji) and mentioned that he might need a place to crash. 

She replied with a yes and a smiley face, but felt this might be sending the wrong signal. So she closed her text by typing, “Don’t worry, I’ve got a comfy ...” then used the couch emoji. He sent back a frowning face, then a winking face. 

She had no idea what to make of that. And the guy never showed up. 

We can probably agree that she was better off without this particular suitor. But the larger point is that these two had used pictographs to avoid an awkward but necessary conversation about what his visit would mean.

To me, this episode reveals two conflicting truths.

The first is that human thoughts and feelings remain too complex, too abstract, and too nuanced to be captured by images alone. We need words to make ourselves understood. So I’m not one of those techno-fatalists who believe emojis are going to replace writing. 

But the second truth is that our addiction to the convenience of screen-based communication often keeps us from revealing our true selves.

It’s easier, and safer, to tap a button and generate a friendly glyph than it is to confess more precisely how we’re feeling. The writer in me is pretty sure that pattern is only going to make us feel more isolated in the end.

Rest assured, I’ll still be sending my wife an occasional emoji. But not as a substitute for sentiments that should be said to her directly. There’s no shortcut to the human heart.

Steve Almond is a regular contributor and the author of books including Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.

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