In Praise of Emoji as Tactful Conversation-Enders

Once upon a time we did not need to find a polite way to cut off a written exchange, because written exchanges happened through the mail, and days or weeks separated every dispatch. “Most sincerely, Katy,” I could scrawl, free to ignore that particular back-and-forth until the mail boat made its return trip. But the rapid-fire interaction of texting and IMing means that modern communicators face a new and modern conundrum: How do you tomahawk a conversation without making it weird?

Emoji beautifully solve this problem, magicking us out of interpersonal jams, especially when we are trying really hard to end transmission. You’ve said all you need to say, and yet you don’t want to leave the other person’s final message hanging. Without emoji, you’re in the affirmative badlands: yeah (too stoner-y and casual?), OK (bland and perfunctory), sure (sounds possibly sarcastic). Or you’ve got it (“got it!”) or you see (“I see”), even though such phrases are cheery, depersonalizing jargon and each one takes an icepick to your soul.

And what if you honestly don’t know what to say? Your friend is dog-sitting another friend’s dog, and you hate dogs (or friends). It makes sense to have a noncommittal dog emoji in reserve. Maybe your boss wants you to double-check a spreadsheet to make sure it’s up-to-date. You’d like to project affable proficiency; but in context, “will do” sounds surly, and “will do!” brown-nosey (because who genuinely likes double-checking spreadsheets?). So you Slack her the thumbs-up.

The age of the emoji is homo sapiens’ time to shine, as we’re one of the few species that traffics and delights in the symbolic. (Were the Lascaux cave paintings slapped on the wall to silence some longwinded elder?) In general, these thumbnail runes are whimsical, playful, ambiguous. They feel inviting and social even when you are putting a pin in a conversation—they shut it down without “shutting it down.” Consider the hermeneutic openness of the winky-face, which inveigles so many possible interpretations from a viewer that she feels as though the dialogue is continuing long after it’s over. Consider the friendliness of cartoon-ified eyeballs that express: I’m curious to see what you come up with! They are funny, unthreatening, self-deprecating by nature; they presume that the speaker’s message can be summarized by a cute and not especially dignified pictogram.

What’s more, as has been oft-observed, emoji help replace the nonverbal signaling that, in a verbal dialogue, provides rhythmic punctuation to the exchange. You can tell by the way someone stands, moves, and talks when they are ready for a conversation to end; in text, those clues evanesce like the steam pouring out of your ears when you need to kibosh a meandering Gchat so that you can call your sister back. Emoji, though, return to us some of that nonverbal communication—they can even replicate it, with cartoon nodding heads and “OK” hands.

As intermediaries between language and image, they are transitional: mini-Charons ferrying you into and out of verbal interactions. Not all conversation-closing emoji function the same way, however. Here’s a brief user’s guide.

The uncannily apt emoji

The perfect emoji. A feat of Olympic virtuosity—a mic drop—on either your part or destiny’s. Unicode has furnished you with a precise pictographical representation of the natural response to what I just said. No more needs to be done here.

The humorously redundant emoji

You said you bought a truck and I responded with the “truck” symbol. You said there were bananas in the kitchen and I posted a “banana.” I am the world’s most obvious one-person Greek chorus. Somehow, my tautology reveals that our conversation is over.

The moonily random emoji

I am here. I hear you. Accept this pure phatic signifier of my presence and desire to connect. Also, I am conscious of this sweet subtext and thus gently mocking it by choosing the most unaccountably arbitrary image imaginable to convey my fellowship. Aren’t human relationships absurd? But they are all we have.

The shibboleth emoji

No one but us has a clue what this emoji means. Shhh.

The dutiful emoji

OK-hand. Thumbs up. Literal translation: Aye-aye. Yessir. 10-4. Roger. Secret translation: I’m on it, stop talking to me.