Can Emojis Make Me Seem Empathetic?

Will an emoji improve my relationship? Or spice it up?!

A banner ad that says pump up your sexting with emojis. It shows lips, a peach, and eggplant as possible emojis.
Will emojis make me seem empathetic (or more?) Credit: emojiguide.com

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can emojis make me seem more empathetic? My girlfriend says I lack empathy and while I don’t think that is true, I see that I could easily sprinkle some emojis in my correspondence to her. I am not sure why she is asking me this but should I add some happy faces? It’s an easy fix!  Ryan, Sacramento

Dear Ryan:  Empathy is the buzz word these days, and it’s good to seek it wherever we can. Personally, the only emoji I wish for a big human ear with an X across it. This ‘EarX’ emoji would replace the need to shout on Zoom, “You are on Mute.”

But, to be serious, learned linguists and psychologists do think that emojis can improve written communications. Emojis can embed tone and intention and help substitute for the non-verbal cues and gestures for face-to-face communications. As you can see in the image, they can also do a lot more! But stay dubious, for there are lots of foibles and miscommunications in face-to-face meet ups too.

from the i-mode team:

Emojis were conceived alongside the Internet to clarify the written word, and  some would say, fill the empathy gap.  A Japanese  telecom team, assigned to a project called i-mode, observed that email recipients could not judge the context and intentions (for a fuller breakdown read this).  Team member Shigeta Kurita was graphically inspired  by manga and kanji. But, recall that the yellow smiley face, with two dots for eyes and a wide grin, had already become an universal symbol.

That was when Windows 95 launched. Since then emojis continue to sprout like a new language. Social media firms have been intent on marrying the emoji to convey emotion and empathy, just like you mentioned. Facebook experimented with them (circa 2012) because they hoped that users would be less angry and more compliant when friends asked them to remove photos or messages. Says a UCBerkeley psychology  professor advising Facebook’s emoticon team, ” The idea was to get people to be kinder and more polite to make for more compassionate communication.” 

A Verbal Shortcut

As emojis become an everyday auxiliary, my opinion is that we use them less for emotive means and more for speed. We add emojis to our texts and chat as they shorten the number of words to input. Emojis are a meta-language well suited for phones:  brevity counts and the emoji is a verbal shortcut. 

There seems little harm as you say in “sprinkling some emojis” through your text or chat to the girlfriend, but before you start using them remember that there is no emoji standard. Users in different countries and different cultures make different assumptions on their motivation and meaning. Using an emoji might not create that shared harmony you seek.

Furthermore, human empathy is endless, but emoji is not. In 2019 there were 2,823 symbols encoded by Unicode. If you are serious about this relationship, then ask her to comment on the emojis you choose, and specifically ask how they make her feel. Better yet, do this in person, not over chat or text! BTW, sending  fresh flowers, or cards or food always outshines emojis. 😀 😃 😄

Venmo and Bitcoin for Teen?

A teen loses money on Bitcoin Cash. His parents set up the account…

A smartphone screen from Venmo that displays chart of  Bitcoin investment.
Venmo Cryptocurrency . Image: Slashgear

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My parents set up a Venmo account for me ( a teen) so that I could buy and sell baseball cards more easily. I did that for a while but then Venmo flashed me an opportunity. I found that I was more interested in buying and selling Bitcoin Cash. So, I started buying Bitcoin Cash on their site and that worked for a while and then it didn’t. I lost a significant amount of money. How do I tell my parents about Venmo and Bitcoin? Finn, Boston

Dear Finn: There are three critical pieces of information missing from your inquiry-  first, your age, second how you replenish the Venmo balance , and third the dollar loss. I am guessing you are under 18, that is why your parents set up the Venmo account for you. Is the dollar amount- say more than $300?  But, don’t beat yourself up. From time immemorial, people have waged, gained, and lost on horses, stocks, slot machines, sports and lotteries. Here is my previous take on online investments.

Parents, who are not familiar with Venmo, should note that this platform began offering active users the ability to buy and sell cryptocurrency in April. The initial investment, which can be as low as $1.00, will rise and fall in value, just like a stock. There is a service fee, and you can’t transfer “coins” to another user, but you cash out the balance to a designated bank account. 

The Apology

You have to level with your parents, but they may know what’s going on since they set up the initial account, possibly with email notifications. Here’s some advice to get you going. First, explain to them that you have this entrepreneurial streak- that’s why you started trading baseball cards. You view crypto as the next big thing and want to dip your toes in the water…. If you say this you will be in sync with some of the big brokerage firms and analysts.

Also hint that you are interested in digital currencies because you see it as a generational sea change. Cyroptocurrency is the currency of your generation, the currency of the future.  Blockchain, the record keeping behind Bitcoin Cash will be embraced, then regulated by national treasuries. This might be a stretch, but weren’t you doing homework for a history assignment on El Salvador now that it has adopted bitcoin as its national currency?

Hopefully your parents will chalk your financial losses to growing up. It may be their trust that you have most forfeited. Be prepared to repay them the starting balance on your Venmo account. You can earn this money back on weekends or after school.  And, hopefully, fingers crossed, they will see a bright spot  should they need to offset some short term gains with a short term loss; they could be getting a statement from the IRS if you sold the cryptocurrency. 

Crash, Burn, Recover

What you are describing may happen frequently now that kids have phones and access to brokerage accounts. From the nineteen fifties onward kids crashed their parent’s cars- in the 2020s, kids also crash and burn on the Internet.  So, move on and don’t lose your curiosity and passion. However, I do want to close by mentioning the difference between using digital currency versus paper money. 

Our Federal Reserve banks have been tracking for some time that purchases with credit cards and electronic payments are overtaking cash. However, there is a concomitant trend to spend more and save less. Academic studies find that those using credit cards are less likely to remember how much they spent, take less time deciding what to buy, are more willing to pay high prices and make a greater number of purchases. Some brain research finds that cashless spending activates the same reward centers of the brain that are triggered by cocaine and other addictive drugs!

Could cryptocurrencies, like your Venmo investment, be particularly addicting and dangerous? Physical money is tangible, so when we hand it over to pay for something, we also give up something.  But, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin Cash lack intrinsic economic value (they are not tied to any asset) and are “frictionless” to buy and sell. Perhaps we all need to reflect on that as we grow up with them.

Do Food & Phone Lack Etiquette?

Food, Phone and Etiquette. A diner pulls out their phone while eating a meal.
Food, Phone, and Etiquette. From SWNS news

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My roomies and I celebrated the end of the school year by getting a reservation at a famous local restaurant. You would recognize the name. When we were seated, two of them kept their phones out and used them throughout the meal. It was not to take pictures of the food either. The server did not say anything, but I found it disrespectful. Do food and phone lack etiquette? Miao, S. San Francisco

Dear Miao: As you note, lots of people use smartphones to photograph their meals and post food photos. One third of Americans say they can’t eat without their cellphones, but remember these type of headlines are Internet bait!  But, to cut your friends some slack (my favorite expression) perhaps they were sending texts to others in the group who were on the way, needed directions, or running late. You would have known.

You can Google to find innumerable psychology experiments on the role of “bad” phones.  Professors run trials with their undergrads and the almost universal finding is that students concentrate better, remember more, and make fewer mistakes (on exams) when the experimental condition removes phones from the room.

Food for Thought?

For this 2018 study, the researchers asked more than 300 people to go to dinner with friends and family at a restaurant. Participants were randomly assigned to either keep their phones on the table or to put their phones away during the meal. After the meal, they were asked a variety of questions, including how much they enjoyed the experience. When phones were kept on the table, participants rated the time slightly less favorably, and were more likely to feel bored.

Is Your Phone the Centerpiece?

Now let’s apply some commonsense, home-spun analysis.  Many people dine by putting their phones face down on the table. I invite you to dine with me (or vice versa). In the middle of the table is a glass vase spilling over with an aromatic arrangement of greens and flowers. We remove it so we can see each other and not sneeze!

I now replace this centerpiece with a shapely carafe of red wine. We move it out, as you don’t drink. I replace it, center table, with an oversized red brick, then a kid’s water gun, next a thick unread library book, a Mexican sombrero, and so on. The point is that each of these items is evocative, and we will not completely forget about them as we converse. Like the smell of those fragrant flowers, they are still in the background.

Sherry Turkle has suggested in her recent books (2011, 2015) that the presence of the smartphone on a table- even if we don’t use it- does at least two things to our conversation. First, it moves us away from deep, important discussions (since we might get interrupted) to more trivial matters.  Second, it imparts to our guest(s) that they are devalued, they have less than our full attention. 

Woven In..So SPEAK UP!

Smartphones weave themselves into our daily interactions in a way that no other technology can. It is their nature to be mobile. We take them where we go, and they go with us. While we are at it, let’s not discount the role of the apple watch- when you check the time in the restaurant, and you also browsing the notifications?!

It is a vicious cycle. Perhaps this is what happened at your dinner table.  When we are in a social setting that feels unfamiliar, awkward, or socially uncomfortable we are likely to pull our out phones. Then we avert the lack of words and the pregnant pauses.  Meanwhile, the more we get in the habit of doing this, the more awkward and socially distant we become. A lack of practice makes perfect! 

In closing, I circle back to the observation that your roomies, aka foodstagramers, might have been taking pictures of the plated food since the restaurant is so well-known. Social media has definitely changed how we think about where we go on vacation, the hobbies we post about, and where we eat. Perhaps we we give more importance and immediacy to sharing a meal with digital followers than to the actual people at the dining table!  I doubt we can turn the clock back, unless we eat-in at home.  Alternatively, we disconnect and vow to stay present.