Do you remember the very first emoticon that started making the rounds? Supposedly, they’ve been around since 1982. We used “:-)”, read sideways, to denote a smiley face, long before emoticons turned into emojis, those small, colourful and, let’s face it, entertaining and fun images used in digital communication.
They took off in the 2010s, and today, there are more than 1,850 of those small smiley faces, winking eyes, hearts and symbols of all shapes, sizes and colours peppering our text messages, emails and social media. They are as natural a part of communication as a shrug of our shoulders or a nod of the head.
Emojis have pretty much evolved into characters for a new millennial language. All iPads, iPhones and Android devices come equipped with an emoji keyboard; the Oxford English Dictionary chose the face-with-tears-of-joy emoji as it's "word" of the year in 2015 and there's even a World Emoji Day, every July 17 - a day that encourages you to use every emoji possible on your social media accounts.
Abdullah Rothman, an Abu Dhabi-based psychologist from the United States, believes that emojis really caught on out of a need to include emotions in SMS and text messages, which have become the norm in communication.
“People are recognising the need to be a bit deeper or have a more nuanced aspect to communication and involve emotions, so emojis are this iconic language that is able to do that,” says Rothman. “There is a need for us to reconnect with emotions, but because we are so detached and awkward, we do it in this almost reactionary and almost immature way by relying on emojis.”
Interestingly enough, emojis can limit misinterpretation in text messaging, says Rothman, because without them, a message might appear void of emotion.
Muhammad Muneeb Khan, a geologist from Pakistan who works in Abu Dhabi, relies on emojis to convey emotion toward his fiancée.
“They have become even more expressive than words,” says the 31-year-old. “It becomes easy when chatting with my fiancée to send her a heart and she understands how I feel about her.”
We live in a day and age where emoji use has become “imperative” across all ages and backgrounds, says Khan. “They have become a standard part of communication, because naturally everyone would prefer to express themselves in better way, briefly, effectively and clearly. Emojis do all of that.”
The little icons are particularly useful in conveying sarcasm, says Sarah Casey from the United States . Casey, 33, is moving to Abu Dhabi this summer, and has been learning about the city through various Facebook groups, and using emojis left, right and centre.
"Sarcasm, something I'm fluent in, is hard to grasp without emojis," she says. "Sometimes, emojis can sum up an emotion far better than words." She maintains that emojis save time and effort: "Emojis are less time-consuming than typing, without losing the intent."
When it comes to saving time, Sheba Elamkootil Nair, from India, is a case in point. The 39-year-old online equity trader says she’s “really big on emojis”.
“They are such a great boon to modern-day conversation, and can convey what language cannot.” The way Nair sees it, emojis are a fitting visual language for today’s “visual age”, and they’re a quick way to get your point across when time is a luxury.
"Emojis are easier, shorter. Instead of typing out the whole gamut of words to convey emotions that a particular text might have me feeling, I can now just make do with a bunch of emojis. How cool is that?" says Nair.
Dr Sarah Rasmi, a Dubai-based psychologist from Canada and a social psychology professor at the United Arab Emirates University, says emojis have become mainstream, and "when something becomes so mainstream, people start to implement it in daily life because of conformity.
“Emojis are playful, colourful, vibrant and constantly changing,” she says. “They just lighten the mood. If you want to say something that’s a bit harsh, and you use an emoji, it can soften the blow, or if you’re saying something embarrassing, use the monkey or one of those that connote shyness.”
What emojis are able to do for people, says Rasmi, is help them to put themselves out there more than they normally would, especially if they find it difficult to express themselves.
“When you need it, there’s a perfect picture for it, or a perfect series of pictures, and it facilitates communication in a lot of ways,” she says.
Kat Alvez from the Philippines, who works in real estate in Abu Dhabi, agrees that communication is easier. She uses emojis to stress a point or express her feelings. She believes emojis can make one appear a certain way or convey a certain personality - the person using them appears friendly, competent, fun-loving, humorous, emotional even.
“I use a lot of emojis in all my chats, posts and everything else. It's the quickest way to express what exactly you're feeling,” she says.
Still, there are drawbacks to relying on the little communicative icons, cautions Rasmi. Face-to-face communication relies on both verbal and non-verbal cues, with everything from body language, posture and facial expression helping to convey meaning. “Now that we have a lot of emojis to play with,” says Rasmi, “we will begin lacking the skills and cues to interpret what a person means when they are speaking to you.”
Still, there’s no question that emojis can both save time and make one appear bolder than he or she really is, points out Rasmi. And they just make the user, and the receiver, feel good, as Krishna Subramanian, 34, a senior contracts manager for a cost management consultancy on the Fairmont hotel project in Abu Dhabi, put it.
The Indian is spending the summer alone while his wife visits her family in Muscat. “Though we video-call regularly,” says Subramanian, “her messages with lots of emojis make me feel refreshed.”
“With the variety of emojis available now, an imaginative and creative person can even chat using only emojis,” he says. “A message with well-placed emojis from your spouse or loved ones can make the message extra special.”