CCO Public Domain/free for commercial use
Source: CCO Public Domain/free for commercial use

By Alizah K. Lowell, LCSW-R, CEDS

Emojis are those small icons—smiley faces, winking eyes, hearts of all shapes, sizes and colors—that we use in text messages, emails and social media. They are everywhere these days because they increase the precision and nuance of our often super-brief and open-to-misunderstanding communications. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.

Emojis are not labeled, so their meaning is up to those who use them. But because they often telegraph an easily identified thought or feeling, they are mostly understood in context. They help us to add tone and clarity to our communication.

Emojis can be used in an infinite number of ways, but in my experience, these are some of the most common:

  • To lighten the mood by introducing sarcasm or humor
  • To soften a blow
  • To find a more comfortable way to express ourselves
  • To communicate when words fail us

Lightening the Mood

Meg, a college student, has struggled with an eating disorder and depression since high school.  Meg keeps a log of what she eats, as well as a journal of her thoughts and feelings, to help us better understand her patterns.  She emails these to me, often using emojis in her communication. 

Meg is funny and sarcastic.  She uses humor to lighten grim topics.  This helps her not get overwhelmed. When writing to me about a struggle with a particular meal or explaining a dark feeling, Meg will often use the “thumbs up” emoji to punctuate the sentence.  The image imparts wry sarcasm that I experience with an immediacy her words alone would not convey.  In this context, the emojis signal that she’s writing about a challenging topic, one we may need to approach carefully when we discuss it further.

Softening the Blow

Maeve is 14 years old and uses social media to communicate with her friends.  In scrolling through her photos, she stopped on a group photo of her friends and saw that a friend who is not in the picture commented “all of my faves [favorites], minus you” ending the comment with a winking emoji face.  The implication is that, despite the critical nature of the remark, her friend is “just kidding” or being playful.  Her friends regularly poke fun at each other while also showing love.  She recognizes the mixed messages in these comments, but knows that the teasing is harmless.

A More Comfortable Way to Express Ourselves

There are things we might say verbally, either in person or on the phone, that we are not as comfortable putting into writing.  Emojis can help.  I have a close friend who is warm and loving, though this doesn’t come across in her emails or text messages.  But whenever I see her in person, she greets me with a hug and kiss on the cheek.  She recently began using a heart or “kissy face” emoji in her emails or texts.  I read “I love you” or “kiss kiss” in the image without her having to put it into words.  The emojis helped her communicate her affection without it seeming too serious or intense.

When Words Fail Us

Benjamin is a 22 year old patient of mine.  He recently started dating someone seriously for the first time and shared that this blossoming relationship was bringing up a lot of feelings for him.  When I tried to explore what he meant, he blushed, stumbled over his words and sank back into the couch. 

He said that he also had a hard time articulating his feelings when his friend texted asking how his date went.  I asked him what he told his friend and he said he sent an emoji.  “You know—the guy with the black hat pulled down to his eyes? That’s how I feel about it!” 

I knew the emoji he was referring to.  I could picture the image, which gave me a sense of what he was feeling.  The image implied that talking about the experience felt embarrassing and made him want to hide. But he was also peeking out and wanting to share some excitement. The emoji was a starting point for our further exploration of his feelings.

Emojis scaffold our electronic communications. Yes, they are cute and fun and kind of addictive, but they also improve our capacity to be make our intended meaning known.

Alizah K. Lowell, LCSW-R, CEDS, is a clinical social worker and psychoanalyst in New York City.  She is a graduate of Columbia University School of Social Work and the William Alanson White Institute’s Psychoanalytic Program.  In her practice, Alizah works with individuals and couples, and specializes in treating eating disorders and body image disturbance.  For more information visit her website at www.aklowell.com.

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