After I finished reading Howell’s “What Does Your Favorite Emoji Say About You?”, I got to thinking about what my use of emoji communicates.

When I first started dating my husband, I discovered that he used smiley faces frequently at the end of the messages he sent me. It made it easier to understand him as we moved through our relationship. I adopted the use of smiley faces as well, and they began to move out into my digital exchanges with others.

After my husband and I moved from keyboard phones to smartphones, colorful yellow blobs punctuated the end of our dialogue. Over time, I found myself using certain emoticons more than others, and as this pattern emerged, I began to wonder what it said about how I relate to others.

Usually, when I send someone a text, a positive emoji will be at the end of the message. This emoji will be some version of a smiling face, and it ideally communicates happiness and friendliness. It invites the reader to feel at ease in reading the message.

When I began interviewing for graduate school, a counseling program to which I applied administered an assessment to potential students to measure how well they tolerated ambiguity.

I’ll never forget when one of the professors posed a question to our group of eager applicants. “What would you do if you were given an assignment that didn’t tell you exactly how to complete it?”

Although I don’t know the response the professor hoped to get, I always wondered if it related to the work that we students would be doing with our future clients. The path from initial client encounter to eventual termination follows no clear path.

While those of us in the helping professions will have theories, assessments, techniques, and our Code of Ethics to guide us, at the end of the day, we will struggle if we can’t navigate a substantial bit of the unknown.

Digital messages are rife with ambiguity.

As face-to-face encounters become less common, emails and texts are sometimes the primary ways we may communicate with others. These messages lack all of the contexts of body language, facial expressions, and tone, a lot can remain unsaid between the sender and receiver.

Because of this ambiguity, there is more of a risk of a message being misinterpreted. Although emoji have no place in professional communication, for more casual dialogue, emoji can come to the rescue to ease the transaction.

For myself, the use of emoji is an attempt to remove the potential for ambiguity.

But further than that, I have wondered if my use of positive emoji come out of some intention to influence the perception of myself to another person. Who we are is as much a personal construction as it is an actual experience. We all want to be liked.

If I aim for friendliness and positivity in the presentation of my text messages, in the placement of an artifact which signifies warmth and kindness, what does this say about me? How will the construction of self impact my encounters with clients?

“As face-to-face encounters become less common, emails and texts are sometimes the primary ways we may communicate with others.”

And then, do emoji contribute a shallow effect to the message? A dumbing-down of one of the primary ways we relate to one another? Can a baseline of friendliness in a casual text not simply be assumed?

And finally, what does it say about me that I want to remove ambiguity from my text messages?

Like most things in life, there are no right or wrong answers. The use of an emoji may indeed soften a message which might otherwise be taken to mean something more challenging.

On the other hand, overuse of emoji may lead to confusion and uncertainty about the message intended, and conclusions may be drawn about the sender which are unwelcome or inaccurate.

It is fascinating how diverse the use of emoji is. As the way we communicate with others changes over time due to technology and shifts in social expectations, our use of emoji is likely to evolve with us.

Jessica L. Faulk
Jessica L. Faulk is a MSW student at Winthrop University, and her undergraduate degree is in psychology from Arizona State University. She intends to earn her LCSW and practice psychotherapy.

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