I used to pride myself on never ending — or beginning — text messages or emails or social media posts with a smiley face or a heart or a winky emoji, on never using such emojis at all. I used to consider the people who did so regularly to be obvious and basic and trying way too hard. Let your message stand on its own! I would think. Have the courage to let someone misinterpret it if they must! You don't always have to come off as nice! For the love of all that is good and holy, stop with the incessant smiles!
I felt quite justified in my judgment. Weren't such emojis passive aggressive, or even aggressive-aggressive, sometimes? Were the people who sent these missives truly smiling, or were they crying behind their frozen grimaces, trapped in a false paroxysm of joy they never truly felt? That one persistent winky-face user I knew, why did he add it at the end of everything, like a period? I felt cynical about the entire thing, dubious that the emoji reflected the actual, pure beliefs of the user. Maybe I also hated the idea that I was expected to respond in kind to whatever smile was thrown my way — even though smiling does do some pretty good things for you, performative or not.
But somewhere along the way in the last year and a half, I started doing it, too. Smiling not just at people as I walked by them in real life, but also in my messages and missives online and in my phone, adding a :) or a <3 or a ;). It started slowly and was based in a kind of insecurity about getting my message across properly. It seemed more important than ever that my intentions be clear: I was a friend, not an enemy. I came in peace. If someone might not understand I was making a joke, why not add a crying-laugh-face, marking me cute but complicit in my own dorkiness? Or maybe the message needed that extra dose of friendliness, a guarantee that even though I was demanding something, I wasn't angry, nope, this was all done with great respect and gratitude. Because there were so many people emerging whom I didn't feel friendly toward at all, I wanted to be extra-nice to the people I did feel nice toward. I wanted them to know.
It was a version of the compliment sandwich: Criticism, smiley face, criticism. Or smiley face, minor complaint, smiley face. I started doing it more and more. What at first seemed passive aggressive became diplomacy in action, each missive an opportunity to do something nice in this world of not-nice things.
Suddenly there was an avalanche of smiley faces on my phone. I had become a willy-nilly free-for-
We're living in a time in which feelings are easily wounded; people are quick to misinterpret; fires are fast to flame; interpersonal damages happen in the blink of an eye, and can be irreparable (even between people who've never met in real life). It can be very difficult to express yourself, especially if you haven't grown up in a particularly effusive household (or if you've grown up in a too-effusive one), or if you've had to repress your emotions to suit some standard of what you feel you're expected to be. We're living in something of an emotional expression desert, and what comes out of that is, all too often, pain.
A survey from 2014 commissioned by the enterprise mobile messaging company Cotap found that "78 percent of American workers do not feel very emotionally connected to those they work with, such as coworkers, bosses, and clients." I suspect this percentage has only grown, not only in business environments but also otherwise, in the years since. According to that survey, "33 percent wish there was a better way to express emotions when communicating to those in the workplace," and "[m]ore men than women (36 percent to 29 percent) want a better way to express their emotions at work." Additionally, large percentages of people felt that if they were better able to express emotions at work, they'd be less stressed, more efficient, more productive, happier, more fulfilled, and would like themselves more.
It's more than just emotional expression in the workplace, of course, it's everywhere. What does it mean that we connect more and more by smiley faces or likes or hearts? But then ... isn't it better to do that than nothing at all?
According to that same survey, 76 percent of American workers said they had used an emoji at work. You might say it's a gateway drug to feelings, a way in to a longer, deeper conversation about how we truly feel and who we really are. If a dose of smiley face-ism (not to be confused with fascism) could help ease some of the pain, or direct a conversation in a way that was more effective and beneficial to all parties, well, WHY NOT ADD A SMILEY FACE?
If President Trump put more smiley faces on his tweets, would they be less enraging? :/ (NO.)
But back to work emails: There have been plenty of warnings that adding a smiley face in such a context is not advised. According to a 2017 study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, "Contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence," explained Dr. Ella Glikson. "In formal business emails, a smiley is not a smile." Or, in the words of a headline in The Sun: "Putting smiley face emojis in work emails will make colleagues HATE you and think you're incompetent."
I get it. My anti-smiley prejudices live on — they're hard to shake — and yet, I ask myself why. How can I be angry about people who are simply trying harder to show kindness, at least in this particular way, than the rest of us? Aren't they actually doing a good thing for society?
Sure, there are plenty of conversations that are never going to get the emoji treatment, and never should. Use at your discretion in business emails; use at your discretion in everything! (Ages ago I attempted to hug a coworker and he told me it wasn't appropriate. Did I keep hugging him? Hell, no. I didn't send him a smiley face emoji, either.)
But if there are appropriate small ways to lift our own spirits, and to lift the spirits of others, shouldn't we use them? After all, a little bit of looseness, a dash more fun in interactions with promising strangers and friends alike can only be a good thing, particularly when society feels so oppressively bleak. A smiley face is like the adorable kitten video of yore. It isn't going to change the world — it takes a lot more than that. But it's a start in demonstrating a certain vulnerable earnestness, and the simple human desire to try.
Just don't start going around telling people to smile. That's a whole 'nother ball of wax.