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:

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. 😀 😃 😄

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.

Birth Announcements… Print or Internet?

Hello World! Do new families share this on the Internet or in print?

A baby announcement that shows an infant and the text "hello world"
Birth Announcements: Print or Internet?
photo credit: (2018)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Am I out-of-date when it comes to birth announcements? I had a baby earlier this year, so I sent my friends and work-associates a small photo card with newborn vitals (weight, height, delivery date). My BFF is having a baby soon and says sending out these print cards is old-fashioned. She plans to post the baby picture by text and on the Internet (social media). She thinks it’s more personalized to reach out this way. Scarlet, San Francisco

Dear Scarlet:  First, congratulations to you and your friend. No matter how you announce this to the world, at the end of the day, parents rule and you must personally navigate these changing times of disclosure and sharing.

But, I rather agree with you, and would prefer that baby announcements be sent by mail, not by text or social media. And, I don’t think it’s out-of-date. When I searched on the web, there was a divide between those who still followed this practice, and those who found it arcane. 


It’s fun to pin these print announcements to the refrigerator door and oogle at the newborn- they are a visual reminder of how precious life is. That is a moment lost by social media. There, pictures flash by and get our attention for five or six seconds. Occasionally, we upload them to a cloud shared with a jumble of unconnected photos. Not everyone will save your printed cards, but recall that they also have useful information:  babies weight, height, spelling of name, and, of course, a return address should they send a gift. 

You probably don’t care if people send a gift, but the natural response of many people is to do this – even if you post on social media. In that case, the gift givers will need your address, and- surprise of surprise- we are back in the business of sending and receiving things in the mail.

Organic losS

My major issue with posting on social media (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) is that we cannot be sure that your announcements will actually be seen. On Facebook, the average reach of an organic post hovers around 5.20%.  That means roughly one in every 19 fans sees the page’s non-promoted content. Some of your friends may not hear about the baby if the algorithm finds other priorities that day.

Speaking of which, we give a lot of power to the algorithm when we use social media.  Businesses, both large and small, are likely to scrape the public feed to identify new parents so they can tailor ads  for them- e.g., rural/urban; baby boy/ baby girl, one parent/two parent home; etc. I don’t know if this issue is real yet, but posting pictures also opens up the door to train algorithms on facial recognition from birth onwards!  

Precious Moments

That’s a long run concern. For the short term, your friends are going to be wrapped up in their social media, checking to see who liked the post and going back to the platform to comment. That is going to take time away from baby.

This is the same issue if your friends choose text instead to post about the new arrival. Friends will want to say congratulations and get a  home address. But, a phone that pings and rings is an annoyance. It diverts our focus and attention, as well as that rare sleep. The first couple of weeks are precious, and deserve ‘time off’ from notifications and badges. 

In closing, I do recognize that the way we celebrate things publicly does change over time. Newspapers used to print birth announcements, and they got their data from the public registry.  I personally enjoyed reading them to learn what baby names were in vogue! No matter what medium your friend chooses, I am sure that her closest friends and families will find out and that is what counts.