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Emojis are making us feel less of the feels

Hiding behind our emotions.
Hiding behind our emotions.
Image: AP Photo/Eugene Tanner
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Every day we rely on a mix of emojis, emoticons, and gifs in our messages to help our friends and colleagues understand what we’re trying to say—and how we’re trying to say it. We heart and like our way through our feeds, providing support or adding a dash of color to our posts. We tap the sad face to show sympathy. We post a gif of James Van Der Beek crying to show disappointment. Don’t know what to say at all? Perhaps a shruggie ¯_(ツ)_/¯ will do.

But something is lost in translation. As we outsource our feelings to tiny pictures, it narrows our ability to express ourselves honestly. We lean on auto-predict emojis to populate our texts, choose Facebook reactions over a heartfelt comment (or, gasp!, a phone call), and select clever gifs to smooth out the rough edges of our internet experience. When we do this, we’re not revealing our emotions—we’re often stifling them.

Despite the illusion of care and enthusiasm, our emotional intelligence seems to be getting worse, not better. Today’s tech-obsessed teens lack empathy. Anxiety, whether age-old envy or relatively new FOMO, lurks beneath the cheerful veneer. Anger, the most viral emotion on social media, drives us further apart and stifles meaningful debate. In other words—or pictures—emojis’ feel-good factor is leaving us feeling not so good.

Sad face

How did this happen? Over the past two decades, we’ve created a suite of tools to humanize humans on the internet. Emoticons—:-) :-( ;-)—emerged out of the ancient primordial soup of ASCII characters to help sort out the confusion between sarcasm and sincerity in early emails. Emojis—🎉😎🚀🍕—began as a light-hearted way to breathe life into our interactions, and have since evolved into a creative art form. Gifs and memes likewise lend levity to our everyday encounters.

Despite this, we often distance ourselves from showing our true feelings online, keeping our emotional life easy-breezy. In fact, we don’t even have emotions—we have feels. But maybe not all the feels.

Now that our lives live online, we are presented with daily conundrums at a dizzying pace. When a friend’s dog dies, do we choose a sad reaction on Facebook or repeat a platitude that 10 others have already posted? When your best friend says they’re feeling blue, do you spend your limited bandwidth figuring out what to say, or do you choose an appropriate gif to do it for you? When an acquaintance bares their soul about a rocky divorce, does it warrant a heart or angry face? Or do you just skim past the post entirely, and blame the algorithm if they question your inaction?

Instead of sorting out our own emotions or trying to understand what the people we care about are feeling, our digital impulse is to keep things light. What seems like an endless array of emotional options is really just a set of basic coping mechanisms.

Back to basics

The idea that our internal workings can be distilled into just a few emotions is central to many aspects of everyday life. Evolutionary psychologists suggest that six emotions—happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, anger, and surprise—are expressed by everyone all over the world in much the same way. In this view, emotion starts to look like a simple reflex triggered by an external event: You see a bear, your pupils dilate, you feel frightened, and you run. Or, if we are talking about life online, you see an adorable baby goat, you smile, you feel joy, and you tap the heart.

The problem is that this doesn’t entirely capture emotion. The latest research in cognitive science shows that emotions are complex systems comprised of culture, language, and context. Neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that we constantly construct emotions, cultural historian Tiffany Watt Smith traces the trajectory of emotions over time in her recent TED talk, and psychologists like Tim Lomas collect new words for emotions across cultures. They all argue that not all emotions are universal, and they certainly aren’t as basic as we once thought.

Anxiety, for example, is a complicated concept. It might accommodate fear and worry or shades of envy. It might manifest in all kinds of ways from agitation to sleep issues to repetitive behaviors. If we were Czech, we might add litost to that bigger concept of anxiety, which is a state of torment caused by the site of one’s own misery. And we can now certainly add “three-dot anxiety” (that little lurch of anticipation we feel when we see someone is typing) and cyberchondria (anxiety caused by excessive googling of health conditions) to that anxiety concept.

There’s a reason we are drawn to these collections of untranslatable (or just plain made-up) words for emotions. Beyond a fascination with fellow humans, having more emotional concepts at our disposal develops our emotional intelligence. Yet this newfound knowledge comes at a time when our options for understanding and expressing emotion online are reduced for machine readability. Just when we want to feel more feels, we’re limiting our own ability to do so.

A new emotional intelligence

Despite the trend toward keeping emotions tidy, humans insist on being messy with their feelings. The internet could use a little more emotional intelligence, so how are we best to cultivate it?

Get creative. Most of us already test the limits of storytelling with emojis, but we also have go-to emojis that can fill-in for most occasions. So resist the temptation to fall back on your favorites, and take a moment to be more inventive in how you use emojis and gifs. The more creative we get with our emotional expression, the more attuned we’ll become to emotion itself.

Use your words. Rather than relying heavily on Facebook reactions and Twitter hearts, try words. Challenge yourself to say something original: Platitudes might be appreciated, but they are also easy to parse. If your goal is to be less machine-like, or at least less machine-readable, take a more thoughtful approach than the stock-standard “HBD!!” Original turns of phrase help develop your own emotional sensitivity—and they mean more to the recipient, too.

Resist categories. The more we rely on defaults like Facebook reactions, the more we miss an opportunity to develop our emotional skills—and the more we play into pigeonholes created by big businesses. It’s in the interest of companies to drive us to be more like everyone else or to react like we’ve reacted before, as it makes it easier to predict where we’ll focus our attention and what we’ll do next. Therefore, avoid relying too much on the suggested emojis or default reactions of your operating system, and come up with your own instead. Applying some creativity to how we express our emotions, rather than falling back on system shortcuts, is a great start.

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We now spend more time trying to perform emotion than actually experiencing it. So defy internet convention. Don’t be afraid to be authentic—even vulnerable. Given that emotions are contagious, on the internet and off, a little sincerity may go a long way.

Like it or not, technology will be a part of our emotional evolution. In order to develop human emotional intelligence, and not just the rote emotional intelligence machines want us to have, we need to give more thought, more words, and maybe more 😘 to our emotional lives online.