Tuesday, April 04, 2017

From Resisting to Love-Hating Emojis

When I was a kid, through my 20's, even through most of my 30's, psychologists used "emotions charts" to help people, especially kids, name their feelings.  The charts looked something like this:

Instead of 'mad,' might you feel ashamed or overwhelmed, jealous or guilty?  Instead of  'happy,' do you feel hopeful or confident?  There is power in naming an emotion specifically.  To admit that we are jealous instead of "mad," opens us.  It deepens us.  Suddenly, with the word "confident," we are known and seen, even if just to ourselves.

Throughout the 90's and early 2000's, I had a firm policy about not using smiley faces in my emais or instant messages (as the case was) -- and later in my texting.  None of this business: :)  :0   :/   8)  and especially not the winking  ;)

I was a writer.  I was not going to substitute cutesy faces for my words; I'd write what I meant.  And I did, for many years.

Then the iphones came with their dozens of tiny horses, flowers, and hearts.  For a good while they'd show up on my old phone as black squares.  I didn't know what people were so happy about.  Then I bought my first iphone and learned the word "emoji."  Even then I resisted.  No smiling, winking, blushing, frowning yellow faces for me.

But a yellow heart?  Ok.  A tiny camel?  Yes.  A wine glass or coffee cup?  Sure.  Those were not expressive, they were illustrative.  Nothing was lost.

But as we all know, those little foods and animals are the entry drug.  I got roped in by the face that was only eyes.  By the face that had smiling eyes and showed all of its teeth in a sheepish grin (this was my favorite).  Despite myself, I was charmed by my friends who used emojis hilariously, and, without quite meaning to, I started to use them back.  My 10 year old niece insisted that we each pick one as our "symbol" that would start all of our texts (cue the circus tent and sunset square emoji) so we'd know our messages were to each other on her mom's phone.

And then, before I'd meant to, I was fully speaking emoji -- a blushing face, an x'ed out eye face, a bowl of salad, a monkey, a blue heart, on and on.

The worst part is that once I began, it was almost impossible to stop.  I haven't stopped!  Especially as the amorphous-emoji-makers continue to unveil new ones: the avocado!  the cucumber slices!  the little green face!  champagne glasses! bacon!  These people are, of course, speaking my language (all of our languages?  A creepy cultural language where we're reduced to bacon, trendy owls, and clown phobias?  It's worth taking pause...).

What language am *I* speaking?

There have been all sorts of conversations around the emojis: should grown men use them?  are they becoming their own language?  have they reduced us all to infantile communication? will they evolve into logograms, like Chinese characters?  Are they simply the body language of our texts?

The most pressing question of all for me is what will happen -- is happening -- to our words as we continue to speak and respond with emojis?

I sat down yesterday to write a letter (yes, I still have a love affair with the postal service), and found myself wanting to draw the laughing-til-crying face.  Draw it?  Really?!  Why not, what words could say the same thing so quickly and succinctly?

It freaked me out a little.

Don't misunderstand, I love succinct language.  Poetry is about succinct language.  But it's also about precise language, language that is meticulously chosen, textural and multi-dimensional.

Emojis aren't that.

I wish I'd thought to give up emojis for Lent.  What would I have had to articulate without those little pictures commentating my moods and social interactions?

What fascinates me most is that in the 80's, 90's, early 2000's, the worry was that people didn't have the emotional vocabulary or awareness to identify how they were feeling.  The elementary SAD, HAPPY, MAD, blocked the true and deeper experiences.

Today we have no such problem; within a second and a half we can locate exactly how we feel on our phones, and even construct a sequence that says it all (nose-blow, sobbing face, x'ed out eyes, eye roll).  But without a phone in our hands, can, or do, we still say it all?
Last spring I took a parenting class and when the facilitator asked questions like "how did you feel when that happened?" I was amazed by how we parents struggled to name a *feeling*.  Instead we said things like "I wanted to leave" or "I felt like she shouldn't have done that."  The leader kept gently redirecting, "those aren't actually feelings.  Try again."  I bet if she'd handed us her phone, we could have chosen the emoji in an instant, and she would have known what we meant.

But where are our words?

Is it that our words have vanished and been replaced by those little yellow faces?  Or is it that we never really had the words -- or courage to say them -- in the first place, and emojis have actually given us permission to say what we wouldn't have: "I feel sheepish" "I'm so pleased"  "I'm beaming"  "I'm crushed" "I want to sob my eyes out."

I'm not ready to argue that emojis are ruining and degrading our language (though they might be-- seem to be, even).  But I am interested in the conversations linguists and sociologists are having over our rabid and sudden use of emoji's.  It has to be affecting us, our personal interactions, self-expression, and even how we think.  Let's use them as much as we want, but notice as we do.