Tue. August 21
The Case for Emoticons
Editor’s note: This piece is part of a symposium in which a variety of writers and thinkers weigh in on the topic of “Language in the Digital Age.” Look for further contributions on this topic throughout the week on Acculturated.
For most of us, there’s a world of difference between the written word and the spoken word. Where the written word is formal, the spoken word is colloquial; and this as it ought to be–audience matters. Of course, the spoken word isn’t merely word. It’s also facial expression, physical gesticulation, intonation, and apparent emotion. If I want to use sarcasm, it’s indicated by my tone of voice. If I want to playfully tease a friend, my eyes give away the fact that I’m not a mean-hearted jerk. And if I need to ask a subordinate to work on a given task, I can sweetly and gently ask if she wouldn’t mind getting started on her project. Attempts at writing the very same thing out have the annoying habit of coming across as accusatorial, bossy, or otherwise catty.
That’s where emoticons come in. While I certainly do not consider myself an emoticon apologist, I concede that there’s a time and a place.
That time and place? Any time when it would be far preferable to communicate via the spoken word, but when, due to circumstances (including laziness), speaking face to face is not feasible. E-mail communication, web forums, texts, and facebook messages are all examples of less-than-stellar substitutes for speaking in person.
My husband, a high school math teacher of 11 years, is an avowed defender of the emoticon. Just about every day, he fields e-mails from parents concerned with their child’s poor marks on the latest exam. Often–chalk it up to the helicopter-style parenting in vogue these days–the e-mails take on an accusatorial tone; they sound as if the parents are blaming the teacher for their student’s poor performance. That’s where the emoticon comes in handy. In fact, the more the merrier. Take this for example:
Dear Mr. S,
Here we go again Sabrina failed another math exam. Can you explain what went wrong? She did well on the practice exam and did all her homework on time. How do you think this happened?
The very same e-mail without the seemingly excessive use of emoting faces? Well, he gets plenty of those too. Generally, they’re followed up by emotional phone calls, tense parent-teacher meetings, and parents demanding that he provide extra credit opportunities for their student.
Grammatical rectitude, spelling without error, elegant diction, lucid syntax–having been trained as an editor, these are things that make my heart sing. But ultimately, the written word should be evaluated on the basis of how well it communicates its message. And if one needs to misuse a few punctuation marks to soften the sharp edge of the written word, I say have at it!
Diane Ellis is the lead editor of Ricochet.com.