You’re probably familiar with–and often use–emojis and emoticons in your text messages and emails unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade.
In case you have been under a rock: Emojis are those small digital images we use to express the emotions behind a text message. There’s even a whole Emojipedia that helps you understand what each icon means. Emoticons are simply the “old school” version of emojis, made by a combination of keys, like this: : – )
I’ll be honest: I’m not the best at using emojis in my messages. If anything, I don’t know what most of them mean, so I stick to the classics: ? ? ??
Though I’m not great at using those little pictures instead of words myself, that doesn’t mean I don’t understand when others use them.
There’s a type of “emoji literacy” that’s become necessary in recent years, where a string of emojis can tell a story. Even better, emojis are often understood across languages.
Emoticons, too, have come in handy when I use them in particular contexts. Sending an email that could be interpreted as somewhat-angry? Tack a smiley face to the end of my “Thanks!” and the sentiment immediately becomes a bit lighter, reflecting my intended voice for the email.
So as a professional writer, is it acceptable yet to use emojis or emoticons in your writing if it helps you express your ideas?
It’s highly debatable, and trust me when I say that I have writer friends (who I respect and like a whole lot!) who fall on both sides of the argument.
Why is there this resistance to the ways that language is changing? Ultimately, there are ways that emojis can help us come to a place of more authentic writing, which is what I want to explore.
As far back as 2002, writers have been lamenting the way that language has morphed into something more like hieroglyphics, particularly due to texting, calling it “brief, bland, and shorthand.”
Fast forward 11 years. Time Magazine ran an article asking us to consider “Is Texting Killing Language?”—except this time, the conversation turned away from criticizing those who text shorthand and insightfully showed how texting is almost a “new way of talking,” but with your fingers.
With things like autocorrect being used more by texters, people began typing in complete sentences again, since phones would automatically make sure you’re typing the “right” thing (except for, you know, those funny autocorrect fails). With texts that sound more like how we actually speak—in somewhat complete sentences, at least—texting actually became a bit more authentic.
These symbols, which require a new way to interpret meaning, have given way for a whole new form of communication, making some even say that emojis themselves could become a new language.
It’s become commonplace to use these fun little icons to express yourself, making it (at times) almost unnecessary to include words. You text your friend a funny story, and they respond with ?
—no words needed, you know how your friend feels about what you said.
However, similar to the reaction that professionals had to the way that texting is “affecting language,” there are many opponents to the idea of incorporating emojis into more than just casual texting conversations.
There have even been surveys done that show people feel emojis are unprofessional in the workplace, and can even make someone appear to be less competent.
Language purists and elitists may detest these changes, but in reality, it’s made communication more accessible to people who may struggle to communicate their thoughts. (Yes, I’m hinting that people against language changes might be a bit classist.)
One of the biggest reasons people love using emojis is because they share how someone is feeling.
Emojis convey the sentiment behind their written words. Some people even find that it mirrors real-life communications, so for someone on a remote team (or who corresponds mostly via messaging tools and email), emoticons can help convey the gestures and tone that are lost in digital forms of communication.
This mirroring of in-person actions can actually be effective in helping you connect with your clients, your coworkers, or even your audience.
Linguists have even asserted that emojis help make language more multimodal, or in other words beyond simply the mode of written text, which in turn makes the communication more authentic and true to in-person communication styles.
If you think about it, language (especially when spoken) is never consumed in a vacuum. When people are talking, they use facial expressions and tone, allowing the listener to understand more of what the speaker’s trying to convey. Even when it’s written communication, if we know who we’re in conversation with, we can sometimes hear in our heads how they would say those words in their own voice.
When we realize we exist in a world that is becoming more and more digital, especially in terms of communication, the challenge becomes clear.
Having a digital “office” (in the form of Slack, Trello, or any of the other virtual organization tools) means that we are communicating with others more often online than in person. When our audience (coworkers, collaborators, and especially our clients) are thousands of miles away, is it almost necessary to use emojis and emoticons to enhance our writing?
The primary thing to keep in mind when using emojis is your audience. (Hey, it’s almost like the same thing you need to keep in mind with any type of writing!)
But the difference here is that, in addition to your audience, the context drives whether emojis are appropriate.
If you’re communicating with a friend, for example, you can probably use emojis to convey what you’re trying to say. Chances are if they know you well enough, they’ll understand what you mean pretty easily.
But if it’s an emoji that isn’t quite so common, I would consider not including it—there’s a higher risk you’ll cause more confusion than clarity.
If it’s a more professional communication, but it’s someone you know, then I would think twice about using an emoji, but you might be fine with using an emoticon—a simple smiley face would probably be received fine even by a straight-laced reader.
If you’re writing an email to someone who you’re trying to impress, but have never met, I would advise against any emojis OR emoticon. There’s too big of a risk about how they’ll interpret that emoticon that you’re probably better off leaving it out.
But honestly, if your audience is a bunch of millennials who use emojis in every text they send, and you’re using social media to communicate your message—take a chance and use emojis in that Facebook post or in that email copy. You’ll come off as being aware of trendy communication styles, and thus more relatable.
So if emojis are able to help us communicate better with the people around us, why aren’t they found in professional writing, business writing, or articles in The New York Times or The Atlantic?
While emojis are becoming more accepted in casual conversations, it’s definitely going to be a while before emojis will be found in article-length pieces or manuscripts (except for more experimental or hybrid pieces).
They’re just too casual still, and there’s the chance that people might not take what you have to say very seriously.
With so many staunch opponents to the acceptance of emojis as an actual language type, it’s going to take a very long time before you’d see ? in the headline of a New York Times article.
I know, it’s a bummer. As much as you’d love to use ? to express your voice in an exciting and sassy way, you’ll need to resort to the thing you’re still best at: words.
When your profession is writing, especially to an audience that you’ll possibly never see in person, emotions and tone are even more important to include to make your ideas as clear as possible.
More than anything, emojis have opened the way for more descriptive ways of communicating. But you can push yourself to be more descriptive in your writing rather than resorting to an emoji.
The “shrug” emoji (or ¯\(ツ)/¯) helps describe your uncertainty regarding situation—or it can be used to describe how you really just don’t care what someone thinks about a thing you did. This becomes a more descriptive way than simply saying “I don’t care.”
But if you don’t care about what someone thinks of what you have to say, insert more assertive language to make your position clear: “I’m indifferent to your opinion on my thoughts,” or “I’m unconcerned by your counterargument.”
(Or maybe add parenthetical side-notes to make it clear that, frankly, you don’t give a damn if they disagree with the main points of your article.)
Whether you’re a feature writer or a fiction writer, if you’re writing about a real person and their actions, you can become better at representing what they do by watching actual people. Use your words to mirror their actions.
This can be especially helpful for writers who have to interview subjects or write about people. How do they fold their arms? Does the subject twiddle their fingers while they talk? Do they play with their hair while they think about their response? Being attentive to the actions of others can make it much easier to form descriptions when writing about others.
Your reader can imagine the scenario more vividly if you describe the way your subject speaks as “a bit nervous, wringing their hands in their lap as they spoke,” or “quite cavalier in the way they sat, leaning back and twirling their hair with their index finger.”
Emojis provide a specific tone to a piece of writing. They help your email or message to be read as friendly, or elated, or upset, depending on what you use.
But instead of inserting ? or ? and calling it a day, you can try writing in a way that expresses this instead.
Short, assertive sentences, using verbs that convey anger (like “exasperated, annoyed, frustrated”) are more direct than an angry face emoji. Plus, it makes it clear to your reader where you stand on the situation without fear of misinterpretation.
If you’re happy, let your writing show your happiness. Use light words and light phrases; heck, throw in a joke here or there. If you’re upset or somber, don’t shy away from expressing these feelings through your words.
Do you want a piece of writing to be conveyed as sarcastic? No need to use ? —simply sprinkle in those parenthetical side-notes to make it clear that you want your reader to know how you feel.
As mentioned earlier, emojis can be used to convey your reaction to a story, or even tell a story itself.
Take for example when you ask someone “What are you doing?” and they respond with a string of emojis:?♂️??.
You’re left to figure out what’s going on, but if you put the images together, it’s a simple response that didn’t even require words: “Walking my dog at the park.”
But there are only so many combinations of emojis that can help you tell a story. Really, you’ll still need words to help someone understand what’s going on, instead of using too many emojis and potentially confusing them.
You can tie together descriptive images by using transitions and clear depictions of what’s happening the same way you would strings together the emojis to tell a story. You can use basic transitions to tell your story moment-by-moment (like “first, then, next, lastly”), and there are also ways to guide your reader through the moment itself.
Just like how the “person walking” emoji comes before the “dog” emoji, which comes before the “tree,” you can share with your reader how “I went for a brisk walk with my energetic dog through a park with tons of trees.”
This can help you consider how you transition from one moment to another in an authentic and conversational way—and then you can write it down from there.
At the beginning of this piece, you probably thought I was going to tell you, “Hey, world! It’s time we all start using emojis in our writing!”
That’s only half of it, though. When communicating with certain audiences (especially in a casual way), emojis can certainly make it clear how we feel.
Emojis and emoticons can provide more authentic means of expressing themselves, but until we reach a point where emojis are truly accepted as more than just fun little icons, there are ways you can capture the same positive qualities of emojis, but just with words instead.
As professional writers, we need to always strive for more authentic means of expressing ourselves in a written context. Since people can’t hear our voice except through words on a page, we’re at an even bigger disadvantage when it comes to trying to convey a certain tone.
But pausing to think about what emojis allow us to do with communication can help us figure out what we need to do better—using words, instead of small icons.
Who knows, though—five years from now, you may be reading an emoji-translated version of this due to a universal adoption of the emoji language. ?♀️
Julia Hess graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a Master of Arts degree in English. She has worked as a college writing tutor and instructor, a contractor at a major tech company, and a freelance editor and writer. An avid podcast listener, Julia provides editorial feedback, consultation, and detailed show notes for CYC’s podcast, Writers Rough Drafts.