Uh oh. This has trouble, if not written all over it, then at least in the form of a small symbol. They look so friendly. Harmless even. But nothing could be further from the truth. One slip of the mouse and you might as well start packing your personal belongings into a small cardboard box. The difference between triumph and catastrophic disaster has never been so fine. So precarious. So colourful. I speak, of course, of the ‘emoji’ function on the emails at work.
I’ll admit I’m something of a novice when it comes to the emoji. As best as I can tell, it’s a mysterious subculture that outsiders like myself struggle to make sense of. On one level, it’s very simple – an emoji smile means you’re happy, just like a regular smile. An emoji thumbs up is indistinguishable from any other thumbs up, save for the Simpsonesque colour and it has the same basic meaning. But there’s another, more disturbing level where nothing is as it seems. This is especially the case when it comes to fruit and vegetables. An eggplant is no mere aubergine. Which is disappointing if you’re a fan of eggplant moussaka (and, let’s be honest, who isn’t?). And that’s just the tip of the iceberg lettuce.
I’ve barely used an emoji in my life. Put simply, brevity is not my strong suit. I’d much rather write a small essay than send someone a little yellow face (or a not so yellow eggplant) to communicate my thoughts. I’m most comfortable when I am showered in words. The more the merrier. But things are now moving beyond mere language. As a species we’ve evolved from rudimentary cave paintings to language and back to rudimentary graphics, albeit on our phones rather than slapped onto a random piece of granite. Emojis are the way of the future and it’s time to get on board.
There’s no point resisting. It won’t be like that time in 1990 when I declared that personal computers were a ‘fad’, that we’d all soon come to our senses and go back to using typewriters. Not at all. (And, if you’re curious, this piece was written on a Smith Corona SL 470 – I’m so glad that I purchase typewriter ribbon in bulk!) Symbols are here to stay. In fact, at some point I suspect they’ll replace words altogether. Which would make for a shorter article. Or, for that matter, a far more succinct novel. Imagine Herman Melville’s ‘Moby Dick’ as an emoji. Libraries could downsize to something more like a pantry.
But the real problem with being able to send work colleagues an emoji is the risk that you might send them the wrong emoji. That’s because they ‘smiley face’ emoji – which would absolutely be my emoji of choice in a work setting – has been placed right next to the ‘love heart’ emoji. There is, I feel, a world of difference between a smiley face emoji and a love heart. They’re not different points of the same scale. But despite this world of difference, on the email system they’re right next to each other which means that you only have to sneeze at the wrong moment and, suddenly, HR’s involved.
I don’t care how much colleagues like my email reminding them to use the recycle bins, it won’t deserve a love heart emoji. And I’d be horrified if, in responding, I missed the smiley face and hit the love heart instead. By any measure, it would be an odd response to a spreadsheet with last quarter’s sale figures.
To be fair, I should have seen it coming. For a while now, some of the platforms have allowed the use of ‘gifs’ – small pieces of footage that convey some kind of point, usually by appropriating a piece of pop culture ephemera that either delights or mystifies the people you work with. Despite my lack of experience in the world of emojis, I am black belt at sending gifs.
Selecting the right gif is harder than you think. You’ve got to keep in light hearted without going so far as to insult anyone. Typically, I like to find something from an old movie or television show to get my point across. Sometimes it works. Other times it proves that I’m older than many of those with whom I work and they have no idea what it is I’m talking about.
When my gifs hit the mark, I receive a ton of ‘thumbs up’ emojis. When they don’t, I receive nothing but silence and a wide-berth in the corridor. There’s nothing quite like silence to age-shame you at work.
Change is the only constant. It’s better to embrace it. Already, I’ve deployed the emoji function in responding to emails. To date, there have been no incidents of the love-heart variety. That’s because of instead of flicking off a quick emoji, I approach emoji selection with all the dutiful care and preparation of a shuttle launch. I’m sure that whoever decided to include emojis in emails thought they would save time, but I am determined to prove them wrong.
Frankly, it’s hard to keep up with rapidly changing social expectations. It leaves me feeling fascinated but slightly apprehensive as to what the future may hold. I don’t how else to describe that feeling, but I’ll bet there’s an emoji for it.