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Tammy Swift, Published October 19 2013

Swift: Emoticons hieroglyphics of early 21st century

For a long time, I resisted the emoticon.

Never one to jump on the trend-wagon, I refused to pepper my messages with little colons and smiley parentheses.

“What a cop-out,” I used to think. “Why not also dot my ‘I’s’ with little hearts like a seventh-grade girl? Besides, that’s like typing ‘u’ instead of ‘you’ in a text. What are we: cavemen?”

In time, however, the lure of the emoticon grew too great. Call it, if u will, an emoticon appeal.

Suddenly, I didn’t need to grasp for thoughtful responses to baffling emails. A neutral smiley face would do. Not sure how to end a conversation? Send a thumb’s up! Hoping to confuse someone? Pick a Japanese flag and a flan!

My emoticon use shifted into overdrive as our smart phones developed a handy glossary of them. I could not only express different levels of happiness, frustration or sadness with a time-saving keystroke, but I could also employ “emojis” – a series of graphics that came in useful should I ever need to talk about wart hogs, Easter Island statues or Bactrian camels.

Emoticons really are the hieroglyphics of the early 21st century. These expressive symbols are an incredibly effortless – if some-times soulless and brain-less – way to communicate. This seems attractive in a world where time is so precious that the response, “OK,” has been shortened to its slacker offspring, “K.” (And forget typing “Okay,” unless you want to convince the kids you’re Grover Cleveland.)

I have included a handy dictionary to guide you through Emoticonland:

=) – “I am smiling to be polite, but I actually don’t agree with you, which is why my emoticon’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes.” (This one is especially popular in stoic Midwestern communities, such as Iowa, Wisconsin or the Swift house-hold.)

:) – Can mean anything from genuinely pleased for someone (“I’m so happy for your promotion!”) to: “I will say something that is critical or harsh but will use this delightful smiley-face chaser to soften the blow.”

Example: “Darling: I would suggest that you don’t ever again criticize my weight in front of your family if you wish to continue breathing.”

:/ – Signals frustration, anxiety and discomfort. As in: “We’re being audited!” Or: “More car trouble!” Or: “Guess who just bought her first pair of jeggings!?” Can also suggest bracing for an angry response: “Ummm, guess who bought a puppy?”

:( – According to the voluminous library of sad/crying/angst-y faces available, we can assume that texting is as drama-laden as a Nicholas Sparks novel. Several of these faces might work for an incredibly callous break-up ritual. (“I don’t have the nerve to break up with you in person, but I have taken the time to send you this heartfelt picture of a fake face emitting a single tear.”)

:x – Emoticon kisses actually vary in intensity from cold, open-eyed kisses (used by the same people who prefer the Scandinavian side hug) to a gooey, close-eyed kiss emitting a tiny heart (fa-vored by people who have been dating for six months or less). Approach these emoticons with the care you would take in handling a black widow spider.

=0 – Reserved for truly traumatic events, such as taking a cross-country RV trip with your in-laws.

:| – Technically an unemoticon.

But be forewarned: Just as emoticons can instantly convey an emotion, they also make it way too easy to miscommunicate. With a single, thoughtless key-stroke, you can alienate someone, confuse a loved one or wind up in H.R.

Did you accidentally send your stuffy, humorless co-worker an emoticon blowing a kiss because you need new glasses and thought it was a spreadsheet?

Oh dear. That’s when emotivention is needed.

The Stones even wrote a song about it: “Emoticon Rescue.”


Tammy Swift writes a lifestyle column every Sunday in Variety. Readers can reach her at tswiftsletten@gmail.com