Emote? I con.

Up until the past two years, my emoticon usage was minimal.

In middle school, high school and occasionally in college, I would insert smileys, frowning faces, kissy faces, winking faces and the like when sending text messages to friends or family.

Gradually, my use of emoticons became more infrequent. Using them seemed immature, and in a way, made conversations feel juvenile.

But in Asia, emoticons seem to be highly valued and excessively used. After living here for two years, I’ve noticed how much I use (and sometimes overuse) them. Inserting them in texts has become standardized protocol regarding message etiquette.

For example, if I send a response sans emoticons to someone who has included them in their message to me, I would feel as if I were being rude. Are they offended that I’m not “smiling”, “winking” or “frowning” back? What kind of message am I (not) sending?

Last year, my former Chinese students would insert emoticons without fail in every. Single. Email. Even the simplest messages would include some kind of face spliced somewhere in between sentences, or would accompany a sign off. When I responded, I felt as though it was necessary to reply with a few faces of my own stuck in here 😀 and there ;-). At first, it felt very artificial and unnatural to do so. After all, I hadn’t really used emoticons this much since hitting puberty.

But now that I think about it, engaging in text message conversations and emails are similar to face-to-face encounters in the sense that we unintentionally mirror the other person through hand gesture, inflection, etc. That way, they become more comfortable when speaking with us because they are, in a convoluted way, conversing with themselves. I’m not saying that we ought to repeat word for word what the other person is saying in order to make him or her feel at ease (because that would be a bit weird and would most likely have the opposite effect). However, we inherently copy the other person’s tone and gestures, therefore encouraging the conversation to move forward.

How are written conversations any different in that respect? Shouldn’t we mimic the other person in the same way that we naturally do in face-to-face encounters? Perhaps it just seems less instinctive since we have time to think about and decide which icon would best help communicate our words. In real-time conversations, we rely on our emotional reflexes and facial expressions to do this automatically and innately (unless we’re suppressing them with a poker face).

Emoticons are a great way to add expression and a little something more to a message. However, using them causes me to enter a state of cognitive dissonance – as mentioned, utilizing them might make my message a little more meaningful or clearer, but it in turn makes me feel a tad childish and too cutesy. I’ve started to wonder if anyone thinks about this as much as I. So, here are a few questions I have for fellow emoticon users:

1) Do you feel childish/ immature when using them? Conversely, do they make the other person seem that way?

2) Do they really add any emotion to the conversation?

3) Do they make messages easier or more confusing to interpret?

4) Do you feel obligated to insert emoticons in your message when someone else puts them in first?

5) Do you see people as unfeeling or rude if they don’t use them back?

6) To females: Do you find it emasculating, endearing or are you indifferent when guys use them in their text messages?

7) To males: When girls use emoticons, do you think it’s annoying, cute or are you indifferent?

8) Do you think messages have evolved because of emoticons? Or are we just regressing to another form of cave drawings?


Today, social media and advertisements are heavily image based – we spend so much time on visual platforms including imagur, tumblr, Pinterest, and the like. Images can sometimes be more accessible, relatable, and evoke certain feelings within mere seconds. Although I think emoticons can be good time savers, I am a lover of words –  I often feel that pictures retract from the beauty of words and their ability to transpire images on their own. Think about how many great books are done an injustice by making them into films!

My ambivalence towards emoticon usage comes up a lot. Perhaps it’s time to put on a 🙂 and move on.


One thought on “Emote? I con.

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