For a long time, I avoided emoticons in my texts and my emails (yes, like the plague). I used the same arguments everyone else does — “they’re silly,” “they’re too unprofessional” and “they’re redundant and I can just write more clearly.”
Then I hit a wall. “Well, shucks,” I thought. “That’s about the only way I can quickly convey what I meant.” I like to think I could type my way around it, but man, I needed some semblance of a face.
My fellow college-goers, I say embrace them. Use emoticons. Use them for the same reasons you should use text-based representations of crossing arms or sitting with my feet away from you. For our habits, we have no other good option.
Why? Because digitally-mediated conversations are taking the place of traditionally spoken conversations. In terms of communication, the online-offline divide is blurring quickly. As we talk more and more through different mediums that don’t involve our whole bodies, we need some sort of extension of the written language to convey a little bit more of how we would express something in person.
Here’s what I mean. Here’s how I propose college students see texts and emails (and that ghastly Facebook chat).
1. Emails and texts appear negative, even if they’re neutral
I have no proof of this, just my experience: “I can’t believe that! What a snarky/arrogant email!” I’ll also point to this blog post on why you should use emoticons in email correspondence. It mentions Daniel Goleman, the father of social intelligence (who influenced the idea of emotional intelligence), saying it’s a true assessment. Goleman apparently says this negative bias happens at the neural level — we can’t really fight it. Without some sort of help, I’m going to automatically think your “Thank you” was in some way condescending or sarcastic.
I say the same thing applies to text messages. I can’t tell your tone, your facial expression or your body language through digital text, but I imagine you’re giving me the cold shoulder. I can imagine when you say “Sure,” with no punctuation or smiley, that you’re rolling your eyes at me and don’t actually want to meet at my apartment first before we go somewhere.
2. In the sender’s voice
Again, no proof, but I bet other people feel this way. When I read a text from a close friend, I “hear” them saying it in my head. This is kind of kooky, but somehow I feel like it’s natural to take how you know they say certain things and apply tones and inflections to a text. (My guess is people probably did this when there were only hand-written letters, too.)
The problem, however, is that you’re used to seeing nonverbal cues paired with observed tones and inflections. Even if your friend is really, really close — say it’s guy love of the Scrubs nature — you’re still guessing at how someone is saying something.
When you had letters (and pen pals!), this wasn’t as much of a problem. You had time to digest. You had time to write to clarify what was meant, and the information (likely) wasn’t immediately pressing. Now we have to make split decisions and continue the “conversation.”
This leads to my last important point…
3. Not as something “written”
Speed is cool, but it’s also detrimental. Because of the speed at which we send emails — and more so, texts — I’m going to go out on a limb and say we consider each to be less a form of writing than a form of conversation. For example, we don’t write each other texts, we “talk” through texts. When a friend sends me a text, I think “dialogue,” not “digitally-mediated communication.”
Quasi-proof for this one from Pew. Note, also, that this was 2008 — a tech-rich time but not nearly as thick as things are now.
In short, if we view texts and emails as representations of ourselves and actual conversation, and if we’re sending them back and forth like we’re playing Pong, why shouldn’t we try to cram as much as we can to let people know what we mean? I say emoticons are a must for texts, a good thing for emails and Facebook and even deserve consideration (really) in the business place.
Formal writing? Yeah, probably not. But for everything else, as my friend says, it doesn’t hurt to consider emoticons a form of punctuation.
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