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. 😀 😃 😄

Zoom meetings and weird decision making?

Why are decisions of the board so wacky and weird? Is it because of meeting on Zoom?

news clipping, alongside of picture of Orson Welles, about the 1938 broadcast of 'War of the World." Source: inhistorytoday.
When a different medium led to weird decision making
(graphic: inhistorytoday)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are planning a small move soon, but will still be able to use the city’s public schools. But now, as a parent, I worry how weird these schools could get. My wife and I have been shocked by the decision making of the local school board. Do you think that their choices are a function of meeting together on Zoom during the pandemic? Would weird decisions be less frequent if they meet on Zoom less and more in person? Teresa, San Francisco

Dear Teresa: You rightly point out that group decision making over Zoom is new for most and has reached its pinnacle during the pandemic. We have a technology, fresh out of the box, and not a lot of experience of how it tweaks or spoils public meetings.

So, a dip into the  annals of communication (see photo). An established technology with a new function can overtake the story line, particularly in anxious times. Just before W.W. II, people tuned into radio to hear the “boot by boot” “frame by frame” deliberations of the Axis powers. This was the first time in history the public could follow the pre- war buildup nightly, on radio, from their living rooms. It’s hard to picture today, but listeners heard Orson Welles Halloween Eve 1938 radio broadcast, called the “The War of the Worlds” and many panicked.  They trusted radio news, and never had reason to doubt it. On Zoom, we trust that the interpersonal dialogue has just moved to a new platform, but perhaps it’s not the same as face to face.

Zoom is Different

In today’s environment, we don’t have Martians landing, but there are some similarities. Zoom is ‘new’ software running on established media. A Zoom meeting does not function the same as pre-pandemic Skype meetings and Facetime calls. For the most part those were bolstered by interpersonal meetups opportunities for non-verbal exchanges, and less emphasis on the word itself- things critical for business relationships and group dynamics.

And, the Zoom meeting is typically larger. Public meetings, like the school board are composed of people we  ‘know’ in person and those (i.e. strangers) we have not met IRL.   Zoom meetings are also longer: we are on the Zoom platform for multiple hours at a time, often without breaks or a change in scenery. They wear down our critical faculties: “six hours on Zoom is like 10 hours in the office.” Finally, Zoom meetings are peculiar, per our conventions of two way communication: with its picture in picture function, we view ourselves viewing ourselves, analogous to fun house mirrors.

Trust in the Settings?

But, to your question: perhaps public groups reach bad decisions for other reasons- namely  they cannot trust the technology. You will recall the story of the local school board that thought they were talking offline, and exchanged “non-PC” stuff about the parents who needed babysitters, so schools needed to reopen. These are offhand remarks people might toss out privately to each other, perhaps in the parking lot or before the official meeting “on stage”. It might be communicated with humor, not with resolve. Now contrast that with Zoom. That school board, and others, have surely learned that if you are online and not sure what or whom is recording it is preferable to stay muted. So, Zoom meetings could be stifling real speech and debate.

Conversely, online meetings also stifle the “pregnant pause” or quiet moments that occur in natural, in-person conversation. Micro-moments of silence may be necessary for people to process and reflect. And there is a propensity for the quietest people to not speak up. Zoom’s chat function, polling, and raising a virtual hand are not real replacements.

Finally, and this may be at the crux, it is easier to “slack off” on Zoom. No one is going to know if we did not have the time (or the will) to read the background documents, take notes, and study the agenda.

In Sum:

For all these reasons, and probably more, Zoom  in 2020 may have led groups to decision making that may seem weird when we look back on the pandemic year. Perhaps it is less about the technology and more, circa 1938, about playing into  community wide fear and anxiety. I am sure that there are some groups and public sessions that have been improved by meeting over Zoom. I invite readers to contribute them! Meanwhile, good luck with the move and settling in-person into a new neighborhood.

Why Use Voice Message, Not Text?

SmartPhone mockup has a giant megaphone (in 3D) emerging from the screen.
Use Voice Message for a change, not text

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I long-distance with family in Israel they like to send voice memos instead of text. Mostly they have iPhones and they use a messaging app. It works for me. Why don’t more people here use a voice message instead of text? Len, Palo Alto

Dear Len: ” Paja Escribit”– that means too lazy to write! But you are on to something. The spoken word carries more weight and it expresses emotions and meaning more fully than text.

Your question prompted me to learn more about voice messaging.  WeChat introduced it to China circa 2013. It seems to have caught on there because linguistically speaking the Asian alphabets are complex for keyboard entry. In South America, What’s App caught on as messaging was free, but texts were not. It also got established in countries like India where there were multiple languages and regional dialects.

For readers who are not familiar with voice messaging, it’s like text, except that you speak the message. They are also called voice notes or voice memos.  Initially, the audio was limited to 15 to 30 seconds, but today it can be as long as 15 minutes. There are different platforms for sending the audio file, that I won’t  elaborate on here. The CEO of Viber, a large  messaging app, says his platform  is popular in the Middle East, as well as South East Asia and  Eastern Europe. Most of the users (75%) have Android phones. 

Voice Commands Are RISING VOICES

Now that smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Alexa  use voice commands instead of  keyboards, this could become the norm. Voice messaging is praised by senders who enjoy the spontaneity and informal nature. Voice commands provide greater clarity-  less ambiguity, more emotion. And, they are superior when you have detailed instructions that are too knotty to explain by text. 

And, voice messages simply go deeper. Think of exchanges where distant lovers  (or foes) are separated over time or distance. The specific words may not count but their tone and emotion convey everything.  

Voice Commanding?

But, there are two sides to an interchange. On the other hand or (ear), it’s often cumbersome to play back voice texts.  You have to be mindful where you listen and whether you have headphones on. Otherwise a quiet private message can become loud and public. Another drawback is the recording- words get garbled and sentences run on. Mostly, it’s hard to skim for content, so audio recordings demand a greater time investment. If you shun listening to stored voice mail, you get the idea. 

But, that’s my perspective. Three years ago, Facebook’s What’s App  boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly users   (Q4.2017) so clearly the rest of the world may be on to something that North America and Europe have yet to discover.

On balance, I think that voice messages are about the user (easy to send, fast, fully expressed) while they have some imbalances on the part of the listener.

Still, they do seem like the perfect instrument when you need to convey more meaning than a text, and you don’t have time for a full blown phone call.  Perhaps when you just need to say to your family overseas “I love you” and miss you so much.