Deliver your words not by number but by weight

Even though my periodic conceit is that of a feuilleteur, I find I am still drawn to occasional texting. Sometimes there is simply no need for verbosity -the information that I am late but enroute, does not require an essay to explain. And yet, even the word ‘sorry’ prefixing the text, may fail to express the feelings of regret or embarrassment. Without waxing prolix, how then to express the emotion succinctly?

The usual answer, and the one to which I have usually resorted, is an Emoji (from the Japanese, meaning something like ‘picture word’). Although I confess that I am never totally sure of their meanings, I have tried to err on the side of simplicity. A smiling face, for example, means just that, and the one of clapping hands means congratulations -obvious and unambiguous messages… Or so I thought.

I suppose that most of us get caught up in our own values, though -it’s hard not to view the world through a cultural lens. We sometimes forget that each society sees the world a little differently. Like it or not, we live in a time of different Weltanschauungen -or at least have become more aware of it in this epoch of population displacement.

I did not fully appreciate the effects of the disparity until I came across an article in a BBC Future article on Emoji:

It seems that what I had assumed would be universal in its meaning -or at least the emotion would be interpretable in much the same way by everybody- was mistaken. Perhaps I would even have agreed with ‘linguistics professors such as Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, would soon declare to be “incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication”, and even “the new universal language”.’ But, as Keith Broni, a business psychology expert explains, ‘emojis do not and cannot by themselves constitute a meaningful code of communication between two parties. Rather, they are used as a way of enhancing texts and social media messages like a kind of additional punctuation.’ Their intent seems to be to substitute for body language, and facial expressions, that might otherwise be difficult to convey in a short text message. So, ‘without the accompaniment of a smile or sympathetic tone of voice, a one-liner message runs the risk of being misinterpreted as negative, bossy or even rude.’

The problem, however, is in the interpretation, and although there is a range of Emoji on a smartphone, mine has no authoritative Oxford Dictionary, or whatever, underneath to mold each one into a universally agreed-upon meaning. So unintended interpretations are possible, depending upon the audience.

For example, ‘While the thumbs-up symbol may be a sign of approval in Western culture, traditionally in Greece and the Middle East it has been interpreted as vulgar and even offensive. Equally, in China, the angel emoji, which in the West can denote innocence or having performed a good deed, is used a sign for death, and may be perceived as threatening. Similarly, the applause emojis are used in the West to show praise or offer congratulations. In China, however, this is a symbol for making love.’

And then there is the smiling face, something I would never have dreamed might not be universally welcomed. Well, in China again, ‘the slightly smiling emoji is not really used as a sign of happiness at all. As it is by far the least enthusiastic of the range of positive emojis available, the use of this emoji instead implies distrust, disbelief, or even that someone is humouring you.’

We all see our worlds through the lens of our traditions -an amazing kaleidoscope of colours and textures paint each facet of our lives. And yet, woven into the fabric is a confusing chiaroscuro of meaning that may obscure the intended pattern.

I have a friend who is equally aged, but perhaps less enthused than me with the digital world. She has a smart phone though -but just for emergencies, she continues to assure me whenever I catch glimpses of it snuggled obtrusively in a pocket.

We meet occasionally for coffee, and since I normally take public transit, there are often unavoidable, and usually unpredictable delays. “Wouldn’t it make sense if I could send a quick signal to alert you that I am going to be late?” I usually tell her when I arrive.

Her eyebrows inevitably head skyward at my not so subtle wish to text. “You can phone me,” she says, shaking her head. “That’s why I carry it -for emergencies,” she adds, making sure I notice the italics.

“That’s difficult on a bus,” I reply. Then, I usually point out how annoying it is to hear others speaking loudly into their phones so they can be heard above the ambient noise.

And that’s where the disagreement sat until one day, the bus was inordinately late and I found her fuming at the restaurant. We sat in silence for a few moments after my abject apology, and then she aimed her wrinkles at me and smiled -but not in forgiveness, more in capitulation. “Okay,” she said through taut lips, “You can text me if you’re going to be late next time.” I could tell she saw it as a major concession, so I merely smiled, and sighed quietly to myself.

And sure enough, the very next week, I found myself standing on a crowded bus caught in traffic -a perfect opportunity for my virgin text. Unfortunately I was being jostled about in the aisle as we stopped and started unexpectedly, so I had to improvise a short, but clever message to let her know I was on my way. ‘Bus caught in traffic. I’ll be there in 15-20’ sounded pithy, yet polite. My time estimates were completely made up, though -I really had no idea when I’d arrive. I pushed ‘send’, and waited for a reply that she’d got the message.

It never arrived, of course, and as time passed and my estimates seemed bound to fail, I thought I’d better send her a follow-up apology. It’s hard to concentrate while standing in a crowded aisle with people bouncing off you, so I improvised and just sent her an Emoji – I used the upside-down face to suggest that things were not as I had hoped and that I was still uncertain when I’d arrive. I have no idea whether that’s what the little face meant, but it made sense at the time.

Suddenly my phone rang, and as soon as I answered it, I could hear her usually soft voice speaking loudly and indignantly in my ear. “What do you mean you’re not coming?” she shouted. “I’ve been waiting here for over half an hour!”

I tried to speak softly, but the noise around me made that difficult, although I found myself trying not to match her volume. “What are you talking about, Judy?” I said, my mouth as close to the phone as I could.

“The face,” she yelled into her phone, and I could see the smiles on the passengers standing next to me.


“That upside-down thing that obviously means you’ve changed your mind!”

I hurriedly apologized, then glanced out of the window and assured her that I wouldn’t be much longer. I’m not sure she caught the last words, though, because her phone went silent before I finished.

I was just putting my phone in my pocket when a young woman standing next to me turned her head and blinked. “I use the upside-down face sometimes -it has a lot of meanings- but you have to be careful who you use it on. The Emojipedia says it can mean you’re being sarcastic, or maybe don’t really mean what you said…” She smiled a helpful smile then turned back to her partner.

I didn’t even know there was an Emojipedia…