I didn’t realize it at first, but one day recently, I noticed that I had started to mimic one of my favorite emojis in my facial expressions while talking in real life.
It’s one we’ve all seen, with shades of different meanings: The bared teeth, grimacing face emoji. An expression of something between “yikes” and “oh no” and “I’m trying to smile, but I’m concerned/worried/unsure, etc.”
(Side note, but it probably isn’t a stretch to say that the fact that this is my most-used emoji — which, according to some, is the best emoji out there — is a sign of the times TM).
It’s always strange to notice changes in our own mannerisms, expressions, and colloquialisms. For anyone who speaks multiple languages or has lived in different cultural contexts, it’s not a strange phenomenon. I’m not Latina and learned Spanish in school and adulthood, but after living in two different Spanish-speaking countries and moving back to the U.S., I still default to “Uy!” when I drop something, rather than the more English-based, “Ah!”
The point is we are all constantly adapting our default communication styles and expressions based on our surroundings, and in the past several decades, that has meant engaging with and incorporating emojis, stickers, gifs, TikTok sounds, and all kinds of different tech-related communication tools into our day-to-day conversations and relationships.
But that communication on the screen also translates into real life. Be honest: Have you ever been talking in person with a friend, and the first reaction that came to mind was an emoji-based one or a gif-related one? How often do you witness something or think about something, and your first impulse is to turn it into a funny tweet? Or imagine a TikTok video?
As humans, our ability to communicate is defined by a shared code, whether it be language or pictures (Hello, hieroglyphics!) or sounds. And some say emojis and other visual communication options on social media break down linguistic barriers and offer us the chance to express ourselves fully in digital conversation.
Case in point: According to Adobe’s 2021 Global Emoji Trend Report, 76% of global emoji users think that emojis help people communicate with more “respect, unity and understanding.” That is a pretty high percentage of people who agree that emojis are actually helping us connect. An interesting find in the context of arguments is that social media can also draw us apart.
On the receiving end of emojis, that sense of connection is reinforced, the same report found, as 88% of respondents said that receiving an emoji in a message made them feel more empathetic towards the sender.
And a whopping 89% of people said that emojis “make it easier to communicate across language barriers.” However, others note that emoji meaning and context do vary from culture to culture and country to country.
As Linguist Ben Zimmer told The New Republic, emojis can be seen as an “enrichment” of written language rather than a “threat.”
As for the future of our communication, it’s pretty clear that we’ll be tweeting and tiktoking and gifing and stickering up a storm — the question is, as always, to what purpose? As with written language, words, or any way we try to transfer some sense of our reality to another person, or a larger collective, there is room for growth in accuracy, specificity, and kindness. Here’s to more [shaking hands emoji] [heart emoji] [hug emoji] as we keep the messages flying this year.