American graphic artist Harvey Ross Ball couldn’t have foreseen the evolution of his 1963 design. The rudimentary yellow circle, with its black dots for eyes above an arc for a mouth, was an attempt to raise morale among workers at a struggling insurance agency. Faced with an unwanted merger, unforeseen paycuts, and too many layoffs, The State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, MA hired Ball as a freelance artist to design smiling-face pins that would encourage employees to smile even during the most perfunctory of tasks. But, true to the spirit of the 1960’s, the symbol quickly came to be seen as a representation of peace and love. American society was antagonized, then, by civil rights injustices, the Kennedy assassination, and the Vietnam War. The smiley face became a visual cue for desired emotional response, and that shift in meaning still affects the symbols of our era.
Enter the smartphone: the stage of the latest twist in the saga of the yellow smiley-face’s shifting interpretations. I’m talking about emojis – the digital ideograms that, as of just a few weeks ago, have even been tailored to a special menu befitting Columbia University’s icons and lore (the Owl, Alma Mater, etc.) for our Android and iOS phones’ digital lexicons. Emojis fill in the gaps where words fail us. Or, do they serve as substitutes for words and ideas, the vanishing of which from our digital shorthand conversations suggests a decaying fluency?
The answer might be a combination: unspeakable (untypable) ideas too confrontational to articulate literally can emerge from emojis representing embarrassment, anger, jealousy, and so on. This demands a new type of fluency most obviously missed when texting with persons for whom digital communications are more afterthought than medium unto itself: our parents, our professors, and even our bosses.
The translation of emoji-to-spoken-word isn’t always a linear relationship, and that’s what gives the cartoon faces their agency – the power of suggestion tacit in a simple smile. Some might believe the smiley-face with a halo, for example, is sent to tell the recipient what an angel he is. But it’s commonly used instead, with context, to absolve oneself of obvious blame. The last slice of leftover pizza, gone? And I’m all the way at campus while you’re scrounging the fridge for a passable supper? Sorry, roommate, I’m sure I don’t know what you mean. In many ways this dynamic of interpretation is as old as history itself: stained glass windows, royal crests, Chinese language characters, and advertisements each in their own way convey a face-value meaning intentionally chosen to contradict, accent, or amplify a deeper meaning. Or vice versa. The Tinder app icon is a simple cartoon flame that matches (pun intended) with its name, but also suggests the incendiary pleasure of a flash romance. The fire emoji, a yellowish bulb with three tips of flame, is often used in the same manner: hot, fire, you’re hot, I think you’re hot, etc.
The fluidity of meaning intrinsic to emoji-based communications frees us accusations of misspeaking and violating social protocols– our listeners bear the burden of interpretation. We always have an out. Sometimes an eggplant is just an eggplant. But if it isn’t just an eggplant, let me know how you feel. Knowing your audience is key.
My investigations have revealed that the most commonly used emoji faces (leaving out, for the moment, hundreds of emojis which depict objects, buildings, sports, etc.) go by many different names, but have common and well-established meanings in American popular culture.
The common smiley face, categorized on Emojipedia as “Slightly Smiling Face,” is to 2016 business communication what “not” or “no offense” was to the 90s: a total recall of implied tone so that employees can’t read between the lines of company correspondence. Still offended by that curt, no-pleasantries recap of the morning meeting? It’s business, baby. Your smiling boss means you no harm and, in fact, will still sign that paycheck come Friday.
The winky face is a different beast altogether. Since dating has all but entirely migrated to the digital world, flirting’s nuances must now be taken, quite literally, at face value. Injecting a simple “how’s your night going?” with innuendo demands emoji fluency, or else one risks a flat, factual, play-it-safe response. Outside the context of a crowded bar, filled with one too many cheap beers, it’s nearly impossible to ask “how’s your night going?” without an air of interest. Enter winky face, the revival of that cheap beer & late bar vibe.
The wide-eyed blush face is an easy out for the types of social faux-pas that millennials recount with dueling tones of rapture and self-immolation. Without owning up to the embarrassment or rectifying the situation, one may keep up the cool act and serve up their delightfully shamefaced self-awareness. An embarrassing story becomes a story you’ve just got to hear – and you, the story’s owner, have claimed the power to tell it. Emojis let us look good even when we look bad.
Emojis catalyze the exchange and transformation of ideas, which largely exist off the page (screen), serving as the gentle nudge we yearn for in a world where direct statements are too confrontational and silence is too cold. Writers in particular find them to be a comfort after so many hours of interpreting texts (not the digital kind) and editing line after line for self-contained meaning and effect. We revert to our natal stages of development when, as babies, the sight of a mother’s smile tells us to respond in kind. Emoji-speak softens the hard, sharp world of words humans spent millions of years creating. Sometimes it’s nice to say something without really saying anything, to tell each other when we’re laughing or crying or sleepy or in love without the weight of choosing the perfect word that hedges against misinterpretation or unintended innuendo. Even when there’s nothing to say, an uncomfortable silence has never suffered from a smiling kitty emoji at the end of those three little dots.
Erica Stisser is an MFA candidate in fiction at Columbia University’s graduate writing program in the School of the Arts. Originally from Connecticut, Erica moved to New York five years ago to pursue the weird world of advertising and wrote the words for some of those pre-roll videos you can’t wait to skip on YouTube. She has a penchant for running, bar trivia, and breakfast-for-dinner.