Unpacking the diverse, emotive world of emojis
There is an emoji that has baffled me for a while. Guides online said that it was a “person raising both hands in celebration.” That didn’t seem quite right. It looked like a cross between a peace sign and a clapping sound.
I discovered the truth while walking around my building. “Arya, what does an emoji like this mean?” I asked earnestly, raising both my hands to imitate the emoji.
“Oh, aunty, that’s a high-ten. Or a high-five,” the ten-year-old said immediately.
Wow, I thought, staring at the curly-locked kid with a cricket bat. “Arya, will you be my emoji guru?” I asked.
Flabbergasted about the prospect of him being the guru to anyone,, let alone an adult, the kid’s jaw dropped.
I rushed on. “There are so many hand gestures. I want to be appropriate, you know. Be cool….”
There is one thing more pathetic than an auntie who is not cool, and that is an auntie who ‘wants’ to be cool. So I cleared my throat, opened my phone, and pointed to a raised fist emoji in my phone. “Like what does this mean?” I asked.
“What do you think it means?” Arya asked in reply, looking like Miss Pushpa, my high school teacher. “Well,” I said. “I think it means, ‘I am going to punch you,’ or something like that.”
Arya laughed. He called out to the other Lilliputs with their balls, bats and stumps. “Hey, look, da. Aunty thinks the raised fist means punching,” he said.
Suddenly, a crowd of kids were gazing at me, like I was a Harappan civilization relic. One kindly kid with glasses and a football glove said, “The closed fist means, ‘I am with you.’ Like you know. ‘We are in this fight together.’ It is the opposite of punching.”
Solidarity. That’s what it meant. I sighed. Clearly, I had a long way to go.
“What about smiley faces? There are so many versions,” I said. “I don’t know when to use the one with tears, one with the tongue sticking out, one with the wink….”
“When all else fails, just put the vomiting one,” said little Naomi. “That’s the one I use the most.”
“And I use the namaste one all the time,” I said.
I was immediately pronounced ‘lame,’ even though there is no ‘lame’ emoji.
Emojis were invented for the smartphone. They are a way to express emotions without having to use your face. A lazy way to reply in my view, like you cannot even be bothered to type in the words, “Thank you,” or say “That’s wonderful,” when a friend says she got promoted. Instead you send a thumbs up emoji.
That said, emojis are versatile and this is the reason I use the ‘namaste’ emoji. In a school class WhatsApp group, what do you do when a school mom sends information about some charity that she supports? You cannot call her a show-off, or tell her not to hijack the group with her posts, or that you don’t care about her constant charity efforts. So you send a namaste. Katham: finished.
Emojis alleviate what can come across as rude. When you want to be curt or assertive, a smiley face at the end helps. “This strategy is totally wrong for the market,” you can text your boss and then put a smiling face. Or a rueful face. Just like that, you have just sent a mixed message, much like we spouses do in our marriages. “Babe, I love your friends but they are such bores (smiling face).”
Like many things in today’s India, we can claim that we invented the emoji thousands of years ago. How, you ask. Think about our Indian mudras in dance.
“Aren’t dance mudras like emojis?” I asked my dancer friend, Madhu Natraj. “After all, they convey emotions through gestures, right?”
“Well, dance does that and more,” she replied. “But yes, mudras or hasthas depict objects, express emotions, create situations and limitless other possibilities.”
And in front of my delighted eyes, I witnessed a dancer’s mobile face convey the nava-rasas-- the nine emotions. The emoji inventors no doubt did a freeze-frame of such dancers and came up with illustrations that convey emotions. Indian dance emotes and so there are emojis, right? Or too much?
The place where I use emojis a lot is Facebook. There is a wonderful line in Jane Austen’s, Pride and Prejudice where Mr. Bennett, the father, says, “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Facebook for many of us is exactly that. Admit it, how many of you spend time scrolling through Facebook so you can scoff at your “friends,” laugh at the self-consciously stylish photos they post, the model-like poses they strike? Like the father said, we live to make fun of our friends.
What do you do when an acquaintance who is a friend on Facebook posts a photo of her in some random cocktail party? You think she looks horrific in that ill-fitting dress? But tell her that would be honest and social media is all about hypocrisy. So what do you do? Simple: send a kiss-kiss emoji.
What about that male colleague of yours who posts a photo of him wearing sunglasses on a beach? You burst out laughing at his pretensions. Guy thinks he is James Bond, you mutter. Look at him trying desperately to tuck in his beer-belly. But you cannot say that. So you send a biceps emoji. Or maybe it is the raised-fist, “I am with you in solidarity” one.
Let me check with my cricket-playing gurus in the playground.