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Monday 22 September 2014

Are emojicons ruining your communication skills?

From giggling monkeys to phallic vegetables, are emoticons actually making us under-emotical?

Aoife Stuart-Madge

Published 05/09/2014 | 02:30

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Emoji Phones
set of smiling faces
set of smiling faces

Love 'em or loathe 'em, there is no escaping emojis. And let's face it, most of us, at some point, will text the crying-with-laughter emoji when we just can't bear to type the letters 'LOL'.

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But aside from a bit of ironic banter between friends, should anyone over the age of 30 actually be using an asterisks-for-eyes shock-face/sad cat/dancing senorita graphic to convey how we really feel? If we're old enough to remember the original acid house smiley face, surely we're big and ugly enough just to tell each other when we feel shocked, sad or excited using, you know, words?

But yet emojimania shows no sign of abating; it seems we can't get enough of emojis and their emoticon cousins. Take the new app, Imoji, which allows you to turn your favourite selfies into an emoji; or the soon-to-be launched emoji-only social networking site, Emojli... there has even been a World Emoji Day declared (we're looking at you, party balloons graphic). Yep, those cutesie guys are everywhere, but is that really such a bad thing? After all, they say a picture paints a thousand words. However, because it seems necessary, we've asked the experts when it's approproiate to get emotical, and when you need to use your words.

The dating scene seems the most obvious arena where emojis come into their own. A flirty wink emoji here... a cheeky smirk emoji there... According to a recent Cyperpsychology study, women are more trigger-happy then men with the emoji app - except when it comes to flirting, then men match women flirty wink for flirty wink. Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider, co-authors of dating self-help book The Rules, explain. "Women are typically more verbal and emotional than men, hence they use more emoticons. But men might use them to get the attention of women they want to sleep with. On the whole, emoticons are part of the instant intimacy, hook up culture."

Tom Thurlow, owner and founder of the leading dating sites www.ShagAtUni.com and www.DateAtUni.com has seen first-hand how emojis can fast-track the hook-up process for single young people.

"Emojis are great for flirting. People don't have to come out and say 'I fancy you' or 'I'd like to sleep with you'; they can use emjois to get that across. Our members definitely use emojis to their advantage, as a sort of sexually-charged language." says Tom, who adds that there is an etiquette and an order to the emojis you can use. "A cheeky wink is one that people use to get the conversation started, particularly if they are going to be flirty. But the most used ones are the purple devil. That one is the gold dust of emoji flirting as it basically means 'I'm really horny.' The love heart eyes or the kiss and the love heart emojis, you shouldn't use those too much at first as you can come across as clingy and a little bit too needy."

But Ellen and Sherrie warn that emoticons are the dating equivalent of junk food - a lazy way of dating, without any real intimacy. "Emoticons are irrelevant to a relationship and devoid of meaning. Real emotion is conveyed in person on a date."

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While many like Ellen and Sherrie regard emojis as the preserve of late-night sexts and tween flirtathons, New York couple Alex Goldmark and Liza Stark discovered the childish graphics could actually improve a proper, grown-up relationship.

In an experiment for WNYC's podcast, New Tech City, (www.wnyc.org) the couple sent each other pictures and symbols rather than words in text messages for a month - and they discovered it actually improved their emotional bond.

"Emojis made it easier to express a feeling - it's just one tap. We ended up sharing our feelings more in text message than we would have otherwise," says Alex. "There are 30 different faces in there to pick from, each one some expression like 'happy and flattered' or 'happy and embarrassed.' So it just makes it easier to convey a nuanced emotion with a tap, rather than have to be so pedantic as to type it out."

Alex adds, "The images also forced a variety into our mundane correspondence. We've been together for two years. We live together. So like most couples in our position, a huge amount of the text messages we send are logistical, 'When is dinner?', 'Can I pick up anything at the grocery store?', 'Gonna be home late'... When we had to do it with images, we did less of the logistics and more expression, there was more variety."

The couple also found increasingly creative ways to say those three little words. "Text 'I love you' to your partner and it's always the same words, but when we had to do it in images, we got more creative, more precise and expressive. And of course, it was easy to do that because the emoji app is packed with characters especially for young flirters: hearts in various colours, with an arrow through it, a heart shaking, smiley face with hearts for eyes..." Even after the experiment finished, the couple continue to use emojis. "We've started using words, but there are still a lot of emojis in there. Some things are just better said that way," adds Alex.

New research from Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management in New York, suggests that email generally increases the likelihood of conflict and miscommunication at work. One reason for this is that the tone of an email can be easily misinterpreted: our internal voice can often add stridency, impatience and exasperation to a tone that was meant as neutral.

Dr Daniel Allington, a Lecturer in English Language Studies at the Centre for Language and Communication at The Open University explains, "When we interact face-to-face, we communicate not only with words, but also with facial expressions, gestures, posture, tone of voice, etc. Linguists refer to these forms of communication as 'paralanguage'. Paralanguage is not precise enough to communicate complex ideas, but it's an incredibly powerful and nuanced communicator of emotion. When you move from a real-world meeting to email, you lose almost all paralanguage."

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Dr Allington suggests that emoticons could help alleviate some of this confusion - and to promote bonding between colleagues. "I've often seen people take offence at statements that they didn't realise were supposed to be funny, when it's possible that the use of an emoticon could have made the intention clearer. Also, because emoticons are considered to be so informal, using them at work can be a way of marking out an email as part of a 'water cooler' kind of conversation, rather than a 'conference room' kind of conversation. Sometimes, using an emoticon can simply be a way of saying 'I'm human, you're human - let's not take all this too seriously'."

However, there are some circumstances when a smiley face on a work email only serves to undermine your professional integrity. "I liaise regularly with recruiters and from time to time I have received emails with emoticons. My reflex is one of discomfort to be honest and it raises questions over the professionalism of that individual," says Aisling Haugh from Clarity Career Coaching (www.claritycareercoaching.com). "There is sometimes a sense of people pleasing about the inappropriate use of emoticons, which could dent an individual's professional credibility."

Aisling adds, "As a general rule the use of emoticons at work is not advisable, however, they can serve to enhance emotional or personal connection between employees. For example, during a particularly intense work project last year, I received updates from a team member/mentor who used emoticons regularly for motivational purposes and to bring a sense of fun to what was an incredibly challenging assignment. I must admit, I looked forward to opening those mails and found them very encouraging. I had a real sense at the time that this co-worker was 'on my side' or rooting for me, and I was grateful."

But while emojis can be a useful tool at conveying fun, happy and light-hearted emotions between colleagues, the tougher emotions are harder to express in a cartoon. A recent US survey by mobile messaging company Cotap found that 'frustration' disappointment' and 'urgency' ranked highest among the most difficult emotions to express in a workplace. And, warns Dr Allington, an angry face casually dropped on the end of an email is not the way to plug this emotional hole. When it comes to conveying a negative emotion to a colleague, dressing it up in a cute cartoon doesn't make the pill any easier to swallow. "Emotions like frustration, disappointment and urgency are hard to communicate because they are unwelcome," says Dr Allington. "We all tend to clam up when we we're trying to say something that we know people won't want to hear, and emojis are not likely to make communicating these emotions any easier."

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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