Emoji-nal Atyachar

Published: Oct 20, 2019, 07:00 IST | Paromita Vohra |

A Kenyan artist has created a whole set of cute sticker emojis which interweave consent with sexting

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Paromita Vohra

Recently, a friend had a little digital contretemps, yaniki khit-pit with "a young lover" (henceforth YL) of his. YL felt my friend had sent him a fake smile emoji in response to a sweet nothing. Things plummeted from there through a prolonged air of injury, into silence.

"But there is no such thing as a fake smile!" I exclaimed. "This is considered to be a fake smile," said my friend showing me the troublesome emoji. "That is a restrained smiley," I said. In fact, I use the restrained smiley often, and had recently had my own digital drama with it. I had been sending various restrained smileys in a professional whatsapp conversation, without my glasses on. At some point—that point called "hey bhagwan, too late"—I realised that I had, in fact, been sending the restrained winking smiley—the one that has a winking eye but does not have its tongue out. It was too embarrassing to say anything so I just loftily continued the chat as if nothing has happened.

I do like the restrained smiley emoji though because not all smiling situations are high voltage or excited or shy. It's just a friendly vibe. "YL is over sensitive like all young people," I sniffed to my friend. "Why do folks need such exaggerated enthusiasm—that's more fake if you ask me."

In 2017, Masaki Yukai, a behavioral scientist from Japan did a study that revealed that different cultures respond differently to facial expressions. Americans go by the mouth, Japanese by the eyes. So, American emoji use focuses on whether the mouth is upturned or downturned. Japanese users have many more expressions using their eyes.

Once upon a time, there was only one smiley, a minor character in the story of language. A garnish, a giggle, a bindi. But, emojis are now an entire language, a visual Esperanto used worldwide expanding to include many human interactions and cultural experiences. Smileys are happy, blushing, laughing with their eyes closed, laughing their ass off. There are mermaids and people hitting their foreheads, same-sex couples and polyamorous trios, disco dancers, ice-cream sundaes and sushis, half moons, and sleepy moons, hibiscuses and lilies, purple hearts and yellow ones. There's pizza and zodiac signs, some of which are re-purposed for sexual suggestions, as are various fruits, most famously the eggplant and the peach. A most amusing episode of the Graham Norton show featured the actor David Tennant's complete amazement at the parallel emoji language of sexting. A Kenyan artist has created a whole set of cute sticker emojis called Backsies which interweave consent with sexting — flirty, kinky, sweet stickers that make sexy suggestions.

Older folks can often be heard bemoaning the lack of articulation among younger folks. While there may be shades of truth in that, it's also true that language itself is a dynamic creature, which is always changing. In digital times when more communication happens through the slightly literal medium of text, emojis make words emotive, bringing the non-verbal communication that is always part of language, the yin to its yang, the whisky on its rocks. They remind us that all of us wish to be playful, poetic, moody, inventive, stylish when we speak, because we always long to tell others, not only what we think, but how we feel.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at  paromita.vohra@mid-day.com

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