The Emoji Explosion: Do we understand each other any better?

To emoji or not to emoji? Just asking the question tags me as — without apology — old.

“When I encounter someone who doesn’t use emojis, I immediately sense they are either significantly older than me, or it is work and I have to be extremely professional,” says a Gen-X public relations specialist in an online article about the meaning of emojis. (Never mind that she hasn’t mastered personal pronouns. She has emojis.)

I confess to both her accusations: I’m “significantly older” and, I hope, professional. Having earned my living for decades by stringing words together, I’ve long considered emojis to be interlopers. The English language already has more words than any other — an estimated 170,000 in current use. For most of us, our working vocabulary is a tiny percentage of available words — around twenty thousand, or up to thirty-five thousand for the most erudite. 

From Chaucer to Shakespeare (the latter required only about thirty thousand words), through the centuries, writers and poets have painted glorious images with mere words. Why throw emojis into the mix? Just imagine “To be or not to be …” followed by a frowning, quizzical orb. 

My resistance began with emojis’ predecessors: emoticons — rearranged punctuation marks. I figured if I couldn’t make it clear that I was being humorous, contorted punctuation wasn’t going to help. Kinda like having to explain a joke. : )

Emojis supposedly save time and add feeling. With just one or two you quickly express a panoply of, well, emotion. Nearly a quarter of all global Tweets contain at least one emoji. Nine hundred million are sent daily on Facebook Messenger — with no accompanying text! The Oxford English Dictionary chose the emoji “Face With Tears of Joy” as the word of the year for 2015. That one alone has been used more than two billion times.

Emoji use exploded (the emoji for “exploded” is a brilliant red-orange-yellow starburst) after they became universally available in 2010. Initially, engineers proposed 625 emojis to Unicode, the international consortium that sets standards for computer languages. As of last year, 3,633 emojis were approved with more to come all the time: most recently a pregnant man! (An exclamation point suffices. I really don’t want to see a pregnant man.)

What’s it say to you?

Because of their universal use, emojis might give us a clue as to how humanity is feeling. Last March, “Loudly Crying,” outpaced “Tears of Joy” as the No. 1 emoji used globally. Makes sense amidst the pandemic, but here’s the problem. There isn’t universal agreement on the meaning of emojis. The loudly crying face “may convey inconsolable grief but also other intense feelings, such as uncontrollable laughter, pride or overwhelming joy,” says Emojipedia.

Emoji interpretations vary widely between generations. A millennial who texts “Sorry I’m late” and gets a smiley response will feel forgiven. Gen-X is more nuanced, ironic. That same smile is understood as snarky, not at all forgiving. 

I can only suggest what I’ve heard young parents advise their language-learning tots: “Use your words.”

When Time Speeds Up

I’m tired of hearing the weary maxim that old age is not for the “faint-hearted” (attributed to Mae West) or “sissies” (Bette Davis). Could we of a certain age show a modicum of gratitude?

Most studies on aging set the boundary for being old at sixty-five. I know of no one who feels old at sixty-five. If they do, they probably felt old at thirty-five. But something — something — happens in our seventies. A friend, seven years older, alerted me on my seventieth birthday that major changes were ahead, and soon. 

That was just recently … No, wait! That was nearly eight years ago. Or, as long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad observes at age seventy-two: Time “actually speeds up as you get older. It speeds up exponentially every month, every day, every hour.” She was quoted in New Yorker magazine’s review of the podcast, “70 Over 70.” Reviewer Rachel Syme observed we might seek wisdom from the old but not always find it. “[W]e’re all works in progress,” she concluded, “up to the very last moment.”

That “very last moment” once was so far distant I couldn’t see it over the horizon. Now it’s visible, flying fast in my direction. Life expectancy is declining in the United States — by one-and-a-half years in 2020. The average life span fell from 78.8 to 77.3 years. Looking at it another way, if you’ve made it past age seventy-seven, you’re into the bonus years!

Also on that seventieth birthday I was given a book, “70 Things to Do When You Turn 70.” I haven’t had time to read it yet. Flipping through, I spotted an essay by a social justice activist, Sandy Warshaw. She wrote: “My seventies have been a time of self-realization and self-actualization built on the foundation of the three decades before.” 

For most of us bonus-year recipients, those “decades before” produced scar tissue — physical and emotional. We’ve been there, done that, don’t need to any longer. We’re free to let go of stuff, of attitudes, judgments, grudges and fears.

“When you age, you become wiser in so many ways,” said the late Coretta Scott King at age seventy-four. “You make adjustments for having less stamina, but you know in your mind what you can achieve.”

Living fully in the bonus years is not the same as retirement. Many retired folks think they’ve “earned” a particular lifestyle, so charmingly illustrated in AARP magazine ads. All that golfing; traveling; sunny climes; and electrically powered, multi-position recliners. Bonus years are not what we’ve earned but what we’re given as a matter of grace.

Years ago, my late husband was studying life expectancy charts. Given the difference in our ages, he predicted I would live another twenty-two years after he died. He lived to age seventy-five, “graduating” (as a friend refers to death) in 2007. You do the math, because I won’t bother. All I need to know is, I’m alive and feeling good today. With grace, tomorrow will bring the same.

Looking Out

Covid has not impacted socializing among my neighbors all that much. Truth is, we don’t socialize all that much. In this quiet neighborhood of modest homes, we simply look out for each other.

I’ve lived here by the river for thirty-eight years. All the neighbors who were here when I arrived have moved on or passed on. I even moved: from the house I lived in for thirty years to a smaller one next door. The population change has not changed the culture: no block parties, no multi-family yard sales. We mind our own business but pay attention.

One time neighbors noticed a side door to my house was wide open. I was out of town. They called police, who entered the premises with guns drawn and found no intruders. I’d apparently not latched the door adequately and it blew open. I was embarrassed when I heard about it later, and at the same time gratified that neighbors were paying attention.

Usually, looking out is more simple, like watering plants for vacationers, or picking up their mail. At this time of year, especially after a snowstorm, my neighbors not only look out but help out.

In the 1990s, after my husband was paralyzed by stroke, neighbor Doug cleared our driveway after each snowfall. Neighbor Jerry shoveled the front walk. One winter, Doug was recuperating from surgery and realized he couldn’t handle both his driveway and mine. He found a snowblower for me. I never did as meticulous a job as Doug, but I felt so macho, so in control running that little single-stage blower. By that time, Jerry was slowing down. After clearing my driveway, I happily steered my snow-blower to his place, clearing out the entry to his carport, which is now my carport.

Snow removal becomes particularly daunting after the city snowplow clears our street, leaving densely-packed snow berms that block our driveways. My snowblower cannot chew through that stuff. A couple winters ago, I was attacking the berm when a neighbor I’d  never really met — a single mom — pulled up in her truck. Leaving the motor running with heater on for her toddler strapped inside, she ran home, grabbed her shovel and had the berm cleared within minutes. 

As we grow older, we find ourselves more often on the receiving rather than the giving end of kindness. It’s humbling, and a little uncomfortable, an acknowledgment that our independence is waning.

After the first snowfall this year, Doug called to say his son Josh was on his way and instructed: “Do. Not. Pay. Him.” Josh has been on the job, gratis, all winter. I remember how Jerry used to venture out to the carport while I blew away his snow. He too must have felt humble, uncomfortable. He compensated with his penchant for irony. “I’ll send you a bill!” he’d call after I’d finished. I’d laugh.

I doubt Josh would understand if I tried Jerry’s line. I compensate with a humble thank you.

A great teacher was asked: “Who is my neighbor?” Here’s one of mine