Wednesday, August 24, 2011

In Defense of the Emoticon

It was so nice to see your comments on Monday's post about emoticons. Nearly everyone had a generally favorable opinion of these little glyphs or sets of keystrokes, saying they clarified meaning and intent in computer-mediated communication.

I *have* read other opinions on the use of emoticons. Namely, that they are crutches, that they are unsophisticated, and that some will not stoop to using them. These opinions come from writers, intelligent folks who pride themselves on precise communication using words alone. When we write for our readers, we don't generally use pictures (unless you do PBs or graphic novels). All we have is words. So I suppose I understand this negative attitude about emoticons coming from these particular people.

Sort of.

Except--these two types of communication are quite different, in my opinion. We use emoticons in interpersonal communication, and specifically, while communicating via electronic means. We use them as a substitute for nonverbals--gestures, facial expressions, body language, tone of voice. We use them for a REASON. My favorite comment on Monday was from Adam Heine, who said:
As someone who has gotten in a heated couple's argument because of misunderstood tone of voice in an e-mail, I am a big fan of emoticons.
And there you have it. I think Adam's comment beautifully demonstrates why we use emoticons. They help us make ourselves understood in a medium in which our nonverbals have been stripped from us, yet our need to communicate--quickly and effectively--is incredibly high. Research has demonstrated that emoticons facilitate this type of communication.

That being said, I'm a latecomer to the world of emoticons. I'm using them more often these days, but only in certain situations. When I see them over used :)))))))))))), I still flinch a bit. I can't help myself. If you're communicating with me and you're using strings of emoticons like the one above, I might tell you I'm worried about you. It makes me wonder if you're in some kind of manic state and require assistance. If one smiley is friendly, five (in close proximity) is trying too hard, and ten makes me wonder if we're headed for a breakdown.

This is in part due to the fact that the majority of my computer-mediated communication was strictly professional up until last November, so maybe I have a low threshold for this kind of thing. And believe me, when I'm communicating with a potential referral source, it's not really OK to type something like, "Thanks so much for the referral!!! :D My wait-list is a few months long :(((( But I'll try to fit them in as soon as I can :P"

In informal interpersonal communication, though, I'm increasingly finding them an easy way to make a friendly gesture. To make my intent clear. To smile at my communication partner through the computer screen. That seems worthwhile. Sure, any form of communication can be exaggerated or overused, but emoticons have their place, and I'm glad we have them.

And here, I present you with:

Your standard dancing banana.

 Now, what's your favorite emoticon? Have you ever created one you thought was a perfect representation of your mood or state of mind? Do you use the .gif kind or the standard :) kind? Do you ever have trouble translating them?

And because it's a Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog day, check out Deb's answer to what genre she's been crushing on, and why she hasn't written it yet.


  1. There is an important difference between the writing we do to inform or entertain an anonymous audience and interpersonal communication. Emoticons have their role in replacing non-verbal cues and tone of voice when sending such a communication. But over-using them is kind of like standing too close, talking too fast, and ending every sentence with Yay! or Boo!

  2. I'm glad my interpersonal problems could help you illustrate your point ;-)

    You see what I did there.

    The emoticons I have trouble translating are some of the eye ones (that, I've heard, have evolved out of Japan). Like <_< or T_T.

  3. It never occurred to me that people might confuse under what conditions an emoticon is appropriate. I appreciate the ability to add a :) to informal blog comments, texts, or emails. They add to the casual/personal tone and do, in fact, offer a reminder that, "Hey, you can't hear my tone of voice, but I'm smiling." As Adam pointed out, perception is everything; a smiley face, while it might not prevent an argument, at least softens the tone.

  4. Perfectly said and exactly how I use them. For fun, not professional. I'm a big fan of :0) & :-D The quick & easy ones. The .gifs are cute though. Love the banana.

  5. sometimes i have trouble understanding them.
    and what can i say? sometimes i'm a bit manic... especially on mondays.
    *rim shot*
    *audience boo's*

  6. I use emoticons when I communicate with friends. I find the more I use them, the more willing I am to try on some new ones, but the banana is a little much for me. :)

    I do not understand why blogger is causing me so much trouble logging in lately. :( It's Carolyn.

  7. So I guess :DDDDDDD is a cry for help, eh? LOL! My favorite, as far as I know, only works on the FB chat, so I hardly get to use it. Actually there are two. One is a shark: (^^^) and the other is a penguin <(") Looks like one anyway, huh?

  8. I'm a little sad that you didn't mention the pitchfork in the eye thing. :-P

    Am I getting better with my use? I don't want to worry you, you know ;-)



  9. I use the standard kind. :-) One of my favorite pastimes is staring at a standard emoticon I don't understand instantly, to see what its keystroke picture tells me. (I know, it's a low bar for pleasure! But hey, it works for me.)

  10. "O_o" is one that I see all the time and still don't understand what it means. I've gathered that it's inspired by anime, but that doesn't really help.

  11. It's peanut butter jelly time, peanut butter jelly time!!!!!


  12. Not to mention the fact that a person with five (or ten) mouths would just be weird. [:|] That's a monkey. He's not smiling OR frowning.