Scrolling through Instagram recently, I saw a picture that an old friend from high school had posted of his dad with the caption announcing his father’s death. It was terrible news, and I immediately texted him to express my condolences. After a brief back-and-forth, I sent him another message to let him know that I was thinking of him and punctuated my message with a crying-face emoji (you know, the one with a frowning yellow face shedding a single tear). But as soon as I heard the familiar whoosh of a sent message, I had a sinking feeling in my stomach. Was my use of an emoji insensitive? Did it make a serious sentiment seem less so—cartoonish, even? Had our (OK, my) relationship with emojis gone too far?
According to one UK study, emojis are the fastest-growing language in history. And in theory, the more people who share a common language, the more connected to one another we should be. But I know I’m not the only person who frequently selects an emoji on autopilot. (Friend’s birthday? Balloon emoji. What do you want for dinner tonight? Pasta emoji.)
“So much of our communication now is done via text message or social media, and in these forms, we use words to express ourselves, but we’re missing that face-to-face contact of looking at the person and seeing the expression that comes along with the words,” she explains. “And so we tend to use a lot of emojis, especially women, to express nonverbal cues.”
Being too reliant on electronic smileys isn’t an issue if you’re using your words to express a sentiment in conjunction with adding emojis to fill that missing link, says Forshee.
Feeling paranoid, I asked her about the message to my friend. “By texting the crying face while also verbally expressing your condolences, you were simply enhancing the sentiment you had about feeling sad,” she explains. Another way of looking at it? Sometimes words aren’t enough.
Using emojis becomes problematic when we rely on them as the sole means of communicating emotion. Another concern? When we use these symbols of closeness as a substitute for actual closeness.
Here’s an example: Your friend tells you about her promotion at work and you text her a Champagne bottle emoji. But, that’s not the same as actually buying her a bottle of Champagne or even going out to drinks to toast to her success. Sending her an approximation of affection rather than an actual display of affection kind of feels like a cop-out. (For what it’s worth, I sent my friend a card a few days after texting him.)
To be clear, most relationship experts (including Forshee) advise that face-to-face communication or picking up the phone is almost always preferable to sending a message. The tone of voice, volume, pitch and facial expressions are all powerful means to convey how you’re really feeling. But when that’s not possible, being a little more aware of how to use emojis can be helpful.
As for me, what happened after I sent my friend an emoji? He actually “liked” my message with a heart expression. (And I made sure to give him a call one week later.)