The Atlantic, “What Do Emojis Mean?”

February 4, 2015

Shirley Li, “What Do Emojis Mean?” (The Atlantic, Feb. 4, 2015)

To begin to understand why emojis—and specifically the ones with faces—can be so hard to read, it helps to look at the many ways people express laughter in text. The linguist Ben Zimmer tells me laughter allows for different gradations of emotion and phatic expression—the use of language as a social function instead of a mode to convey information—which makes it perfect for seeing the malleability of definitions behind textual expressions…

As for the phatic expression of laughter, “haha,” “lol,” “hehe,” etc. can serve as placeholders as well, regardless of whether the sender of the message is laughing in real life. In these cases, letters stand in for the nods, smiles, or utterances (e.g. “uh huh”) that we’d otherwise use in face-to-face conversations to signal to the other person that it’s okay to keep talking and reassure that person we’re listening. When we don’t utter little noises or gestures of understanding, we worry about the silence. “We acknowledge each other all the time through the conversational turn-taking,” Zimmer says, “so when it’s not there in text, there’s social anxiety.”

Read the rest here.

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