What are your most frequently used emoji? Presently, mine are the two pink love hearts, the fully bawling face, the awkward grimacing face, and the saxophone. In theory, people can tell a lot about you from the images that appear in this tab. From mine you could perhaps glean that I’m a socially awkward jazz enthusiast with a lot of love to give. Maybe yours tell a different story. But in a technological age where emoji are as ingrained in language as actual words, how accurately can you express yourself when there are huge gaps in the emoji keyboard?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mere presence of emoji has had its effect on the rest of our language, just as ‘text speak’ did years ago. Several abbreviations, originally created to save money when phone tariffs charged per word, have been officially recognised by institutions like the Oxford English Dictionary, which included ‘LOL’ in its 2011 revision. More recently I’ve been in more than one conversation where someone has, ironically or not, verbally hashtagged their speech. It’s not uncommon for somebody to agree with you by saying “one hundred”, or compliment something by saying it’s “fire” – both examples of slang derivative of emoji.
“I’ve been in more than one conversation where someone has, ironically or not, verbally hashtagged their speech.”
New emoji are added throughout the year to keep up-to-date with contemporary culture. The first examples can be traced to 1999 when Shigetaka Kurita designed a selection of 176 pictographs to be used by Japanese telecom company NTT DOCOMO. As such many of the themes and references resonated more with an Eastern audience. As the emoji phenomenon spread across the world, the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee has worked to ensure relevance and sensitivity to a global audience.
With its ominous name, the Unicode Emoji Subcomittee is to emoji what the Académie française is to the French language: a board that regulates the evolution of the language. Although admittedly, the UES insists that emoji are not a language, rather a way for people to “add color and whimsy to their messages, and to help to make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice [in text].”
Over the years, the emoji keyboard has steadily become more sophisticated, allowing for more detailed visual communication – from the long-awaited egg emoji making its debut in 2016 to the inclusion of gender-neutral characters that appeared in the latest update. But there is one glaringly obvious emotion that is currently impossible to convey with emoji, in any gender or skin tone. I’m talking about humility.
What was the UES thinking when it okayed a floppy disk emoji before anything that could illustrate apology? Currently, in the ‘Smileys and People’ tab on the iOS keyboard there are no fewer than 40 different ways to express positive emotions ranging from happiness to love and laughter – if you include the smiling poop. Sadness, disappointment and anger can be communicated in about 35 nuances. As far as I can tell, the closest to humility represented is what Emojipedia.org refers to as ‘Flushed Face’. The description reads: “Mosrt [sic] platforms display this emoji with wide eyes and raised eyebrows, which gives an element of shock or surprise. The shame intended to be displayed on this face is not clear in most implementations, and as such this is a difficult emoji to use well.” It is a deer in the headlights, it claims no responsibility and makes no effort to apologise.
Earlier this year, a new feature became available on both iOS and Android keyboards: predictive suggestions for emoji instead of the word you, the user, have just typed out. And so, as an experiment, I took out my iPhone 6s (#humblebrag) and typed in the word ‘sorry’. The predictive feature offered me what Emojipedia.org calls ‘Neutral Face’. I tried again. ‘Embarrassed’, I wrote. ‘Weary Face’, it suggested. Why does the light embarrassment that comes with apologising for one’s actions need to be so dramatic?
Remember MSN Messenger’s ‘Blushing’ emoticon? Since owning an iPhone, I have searched countless times for something resembling this expression (you could argue that that says a lot about me). With its head turned to a ¾ profile, its cheeks a burning red, eyes sheepishly looking up to the heavens in search of forgiveness, it was as close to a perfect visual depiction of apology as any emoji or emoticon has ever come before it. When MSN Messenger was discontinued in 2014, so, too, was the ‘Blushing’ emoticon.
Without the ability to express genuine, humble apology through digital communication, we seem to have lost the ability to do it IRL, as well. Why admit your mistakes or come clean about your faux-pas – a social skill which relies on empathy – when you can send an upside-down smiley face instead, as if to say, “hehe aren’t I cute, I’m not in control of my own actions, my head’s upside-down.”
Taylor Swift’s recent single, ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, is an anthem for the era of shirking responsibility. The chorus consists of the singer repeating the titular phrase eight times, which has led to millions of fans around the globe effortlessly committing to memory the refrain and, in doing so, absorbing the subtext: nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault, nothing is my fault.
There are few things with greater power over the public to promote change than celebrities, whether they’re pop stars or the president of the United States. Who’s to say whether Swift’s self-expunging attitude towards the reason she has so many enemies has influenced the countless times Donald Trump has used the phrase “I didn’t know” when confronted by his own inconsistencies? Or vice-versa?
“hehe aren’t I cute, I’m not in control of my own actions, my head’s upside-down.”
When Trump “didn’t know” that any other president before him had ever called the families of fallen soldiers with a message of condolence it was because “that’s what [he] was told”. He rejected that his error was his own fault, and he dismissed the opportunity to apologise for it. When the most powerful man in the world doesn’t have to own up to his actions, why should its citizens? Or, is it possible that this unapologetic epidemic had spread long before he reached office and could serve as an explanation as to why he got voted in in the first place? Maybe he truly is a shining example of the modern every-person. Somewhere along the line we lost our ability to admit our flaws and, like it or not, Trump is the tertiary result of our collective maturity.
While the vast majority of us have nothing to do with the development of the emoji keyboard, it’s nonetheless shaped the way we communicate verbally, and to some extent how we interact. On episode 201 of the Comedian’s Comedian podcast, Russell Brand said: “Only things that there are words for are being said”. Following that logic, if there is no emoji for ‘sorry’, how can we be expected to emote it? How necessary is it to include a non-binary, tanned merperson on the emoji keyboard when the most basic of human emotions is lacking from the selection?