Two Smiling Emoji, a World of Difference

Slack has two similar versions of a basic smiley. Why is one so haunting?

In Slack’s emoji menu, there are two versions of basic smiley faces. As shown above, there is :slightly_smiling_face: and :simple_smile:. At first glance, it might appear that the first offers a slight expression of friendliness, while the second does the same, just smiling a little harder. But these are not just two different versions of a smile. There is a cataclysmic amount of nuance here.

Let’s break down :slightly_smiling_face: first, which itself can be interpreted in a number of ways. I personally use it as a warm conversation-ender, a way to say “that was a nice talk” and move on; other acceptable uses, in my personal school of emoji interpretation, would be as a reaction to a something that someone says that makes you … smile.

Which is why I was somewhat unnerved to hear that some of my co-workers, and specifically, my boss, use it ironically, as a way to indicate that you’re politely smiling because social norms compel you to, but you actually think the person/idea/whatever is full of shit. “I usually read :slightly_smiling_face: as gfy,” Heidi Grothaus, Slate’s own VP of people operations said (!).

Clearly, there’s a lot of room for misinterpretation here. If you think about it, though, that can happen with smiles in the three-dimensional world, too. Like it’s fleshy counterpart, receiving a :slightly_smiling_face: leaves you to evaluate the context clues and psychological underpinnings of whoever you are chatting with.

The stakes get higher, though. :Simple_smile: is, as far as I am concerned, the last thing you see before you die in a horror movie. The proportions of the smile are not correct; the mouth extends too far into the cheeks of the face. The lips are parted a bit, which—try it—is impossible to do while also smiling as broadly and not looking/feeling like a maniac. It’s the emoji version of the demented ill-proportioned faces in the Blumhouse flop Truth or Dare. It says, as my colleague Seth Maxon put it, “I am wearing the skin mask of a formerly smiling person.”

What’s especially horrifying about :simple_smile: is that not everyone is on the same page about this, either (though if you do not agree with me, still, I would urge you to try reacting to a message in Slack using :simple_smile:; at smaller sizes, the horror effect is maximized). In the eyes of Christina Cauterucci, a Slate staff writer and I guess now my nemesis, “:simple_smile: looks actually happy.” I do not buy the argument that a slightly larger mouth automatically connotes more happiness. I cannot imagine sharing something good in Slack—a story I wrote, a puppy picture—and having someone react with this. To me, it would be a crystal-clear expression of ill will. Gazing into the little dot eyes of :simple_smile:, even for a moment, makes the very interior of my being slightly and painfully off-kilter. It’s worse than a real-life American Psycho–style grin, because at least human flesh tires and changes expression at some point; :simple_smile: stays plastered.

What’s ironic is that :simple_smile: was created to make things, well, simpler. In the official unicode guide, there is a suite of various kinds of smiles. There is a “smiling face with smiling eyes,” which Slack codes as “blush.” This feels right, it’s clearly too happy and a little intimate for work. There’s a “grinning face,” which is a boisterous, overzealous smile. There’s “beaming face with smiling eyes,” which is a grinning face if the face is showing off a full rack of veneers. There’s “upside down face”, which is basically a sarcastic frustrated welp!  But for a while, there wasn’t just a straightforward smile. :Simple_smile: was a purposeful creation by Slack according to a piece by Mack Scocca-Ho. Slack rolled it out in 2014. When :slightly_smiling_face: came along in 2015 in the official Unicode, they kept both.

In my opinion, :simple-smile: is a monstrosity, an emoji that is no longer needed given the existence of :slightly-smiling-face:. I am not alone: Whoever runs Slack Twitter account even used the term “serial killer smile” when I tweeted at them about :simple-smile:. I wish it would go away! But if Slack’s unending stream of emoji is any indication, it won’t. So instead, I advocate for only using it with people who you really, truly, hate.