Stephen Whitmore

Why I quit emoticons

2017-01-01 00:53:20

A suit of armour

Sometimes what we dislike the most in others is the thing that we dislike the most in ourselves.

This happened to me. One Saturday morning I came across a GitHub comment that was a hot mess of smiley faces, 🎉s, and “EXCITED SENTENCES!”. I found myself instantly turned off. “Wow,” I thought. “This person is obviously trying way too hard.”

Something made me stop suddenly in my tracks, and look inward. I’ve been practicing mindfulness for the last few months, and this sort of moment has been happening more and more often. I stopped and I realized, “Oh wow. I do this, too. This is me.”

Reflecting, I saw that I spent a lot of time worrying about how my messages online would be interpreted by others. EMails, text messages, tweets, github comments, IRC. What would people think of what I said? Textual communication is a difficult medium: it doesn’t capture the subtle nuance that speaking in real life offers.

What if someone reads my message thinking I’m upset with them? Or being egotistic? Or as bored? Aloof? Unkind? Ultimately it came down a fear of not being liked, and the social alienation that I feared would ensue.

I needed armour. Emoticon armour. Something that would let me make everything I wrote aggressively umabiguous. Surely nobody could help but like me then!

But it was in fact dismantling the armour that I most sorely needed. Every time I used emoticons out of fear, I was feeding that fear, justifying it, and helping it stay strong.

Quitting emoticons

So I resolved to quit using emoticons for a week, to see what impact it would have on my online communications.

It was scary at first. What would people think? If I wrote a message that just said “Thanks Linn for the PR.”, what would Linn think? Maybe that I’m being monotone, flat and sarcastic. What about other onlookers? I had to fight the desire to make my intentions overwhelmingly positive, rather than trust in the reader to feel my intent through my words.

A funny thing happened shortly after I started: I noticed I began to use exclamation points more. My fear had rerouted itself! I noticed that I was using exclamation points frequently to suggest excitement – hopefully indicating to others that my message was to be read in a happy and energetic light.

So I cut exclamation points as well. It was hard. I continue to be impressed by my ego’s capacity to fight to regain control in all sorts of subtle ways.

The results? It was as I suspected: no change. At least not externally. Nobody seemed hurt, offended, distanced, or injured. From now on I try write things in a straight forward manner without a sugar coating of smiley faces and exclamation points. I feel like it makes me come across more confidently, too. I certainly feel so much more relieved and honest in my communications now.

The change was gradual. As I wrote, I did so mindfully. I’d notice when fear was present, and instead of shying away from it, I’d lean into it instead. I’d pause, stop writing for a moment, and let myself feel those fears of how others might react or feel. I felt the feeling without paying heed to any of the narratives around it. And it got easier and easier. Now I’m writing mostly without needing to even be aware of it.

The road forward

It took this experiment to help me realize that I was using emoticons to mitigate my own inner fears. Each time I wrote a message in a context I was unsure of myself in, my inner fears would manifest. The reactions I began to fear was the one I least wished for. Not, as I previously thought, the most likely to occur in reality.

I realized that I was really worried about what others thought of my words. I was focusing on my fears of their reactions, rather than simply on saying the words that were true and meaningful to me, and let everyone else worry about how they react. I needed to stop taking responsibilty for the potential reactions of others. I needed to uproot my social fears.

This isn’t to say that I don’t care about how my writing makes others feel. Rather, I let my wisdom and compassion guide my choice of words instead of fear. The difference is in who I write for: with fear, I considered my own sake as I wrote. With compassion, I now try to write while focusing on my positive intentions toward the recipient. We can never be completely sure of how others will take our words, but I trust that our intentions will tend to come through.