Emojis, Texting, and Intention Behind Communication

by Ruwan Meepagala  Jun 27, 2014

I wasn’t able to talk to humans. At least not directly. In middle school I would get so anxiously silent around other kids that it was questioned whether or not I understood English. So halfway through sixth grade I was elated when AOL Instant Messenger was introduced to me. Hiding behind my QWERTY keyboard, I could finally say “hey” to the hot girls, and “sup” to the popular guys without visibly stuttering or running away mid-, well, word.

I was dismayed to find that even on the textual Internet, there were non-verbals that I was not privy too. The Shift+key characters were their own language.

Colon + open parentheses didn’t mean “look at this beginning of an afterthought”, it meant ::Sad Face::

Semi-colon + closed parentheses didn’t mean “pause before the ending of a clause,” it meant ::wink::


While I was grateful to learn how to translate this alternate text form, I thought it was stupid. I righteously refused to create facial expressions with punctuation. I would get comically furious at what I considered to be “lazy communication.”

Many years later, as AOL Instant Messenger yielded to mobile text messaging, punctuation mark smileys yielded to emojis--digital images that express an emotion. The iPhone default emoji keyboard has 824 symbols covering every emotional expression and a couple hundred random images including dancing twins and snowman.

I found the same resistance to these slightly more sophisticated smiley faces. Why didn’t people just use their words? That's all that matters right?

Around the time emojis were becoming popularly used on iPhones, I had just started OMing. As I became more and more conscious of the sensations in my body, I couldn’t deny noticing that I often had a visceral reaction to emoji texts. A seemingly random smiley produced a warm tingly feeling in my torso that could only be identified as “happiness.” What the hell was that about?

We’ve all heard that 90% of communication is non-verbal. As modeled in OneTaste’s Communication Class, there are three levels of communication: Content (what you hear), Body Language (what you see,) and Intention (what you feel.) We live in a content-based culture with a preference for the exact words. However it’s the intention that carries the bulk of the information.

If you don’t believe me, look at sarcasm. The intention behind a sarcastic comment purposefully counters the literal meaning of the words for effect. You know when someone is being sarcastic because you can feel it.

Hence the the 21st century dilemma around text-based conversation. Phone and computer messages knock out the non-verbal 90%.

Emojis are an attempt to fill in some of that gap. An emoji, sent with the proper intent, can communicate the same effect as a few lines of text. In the same way that what makes Art Art is the transmission of sensation through a medium, so does an emoji. An emoji can let a person know how you feel. If a picture can tell a thousand words, an emoji can tell at least a paragraph.

Yes that may seem obvious, and I’m not really making a point about digital smileys. The principle is that

intention can be transmitted without words, sometime more effectively.

If the correct intention is transmitted, it almost doesn’t matter what the words or symbols of communication are. The verbal and body language of our communication are actually products of how strong our intention is.

The funny thing is, back in middle school, finding the right words to say to people wasn’t actually my problem. Anxiety didn’t cause my mind to go blank. Anxiety had me choose to hide my intentions, and that made my mind go blank.

If you set clear, desire-based intentions for your communication (i.e. “I want to become friends with him,” “I want to makeout with her,” “I want to teach them about how to cook catfish”), the right words to express that come to you naturally.

Intention is the thing we’re actually trying to communicate anytime we talk, text, or send smoke signals. As a writer, it may be blasphemous to say that words don’t matter that much. Beautifully constructed prose is only beautiful as far as it transmits the intention of the author. Focus on what you intend to communicate, and it won’t matter what you say. ;)