Confessions of an emoticon holdout

Emoji updatedCall me a party pooper, a curmudgeon, a semiotic luddite, but I hate emoticons. When they appeared in my life, with the advent of email if I remember correctly, the disdain I felt for them quickly overtook the contempt I’d had for the poor exclamation mark. Really? I seethed to myself. A happy face? Why not just write a sentence that emitted happiness?

If you can’t express with words your good humor, maybe it was time to concentrate on your writing, my friend.


So I held out against the emoticon for years. I used one every so often, but just ironically. For instance, I might write to a friend, More foreclosures on our block this week :)   But the return reply would be markedly chilly. Gosh, have a heart! Clearly I had overreached. Using a happy face ironically, it turns out, is akin to using a religious relic to rake your lawn. It’s just not done.

A quick glance through Wikipedia confirms that we’ve been plopping down strange pictographs into our missives since the late 1800s. Before that we doused our letters in perfume, or sealed them with lipstick kisses — we prefer to club the other party with the full force of our meaning, rather than risk being misunderstood.

As face-to-face interactions dwindled, miscommunications did seem to be on the rise. So maybe it’s no surprise that as email and texts proliferated, these faces did too. They were a quick and easy way to set the tone and ensure no trouble. But the more I saw them, the more I felt :(  .

Then a strange thing happened. I was introduced to emoji, the impish little brother to the emoticon. Emoji doesn’t take itself seriously at all — the insertion of a tiny color picture into a text is already too absurd. I began to use them in my own texts — ironically of course. Then, slowly, I dropped the irony, and just tried to be funny. I would substitute an emoji for a word. Then I dropped merely funny for extremely clever, and began to form whole sentences that could be sounded out phonetically. As I emoji-ed my way through daily communications, something snooty in me began to recede. I thought, come on now, there are different ways to connect. As long as you’re getting your message across, how bad can the emoticon be? I almost began to respect the darn little chicken scratch.

Almost. But not quite. ;)

Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
Caroline Paul is the author of "East Wind, Rain" and "Fighting Fire," and she co-wrote "Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation and GPS Technology" with her partner Wendy MacNaughton. MacNaughton's illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, Juxtapoz, and Print Magazine. "Lost Cat" was inspired by the curious disappearances of their beloved Tibia.
Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton
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