Killing Me Softly with a Smiley

Pop Culture

Killing Me Softly with a Smiley

Illustration: Shivali Devalkar

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where we didn’t end messages or emails with an emoticon. #truestory

There were words, punctuations, and the occasional onomatopoeic “hahahas”. Then came the smiley. A colon and a round bracket, with sometimes a hyphen in between to denote a nose. We used it to convey happiness, joy and love, even sadness, and then discovered that it has the magical power to change the tone of a conversation completely.

The smiley is a wily one. It is truly a tool of subversion. In fact, it is the text version of a stun gun: Bung it in anywhere, especially in the middle of a passive-aggressive email or a WhatsApp message, and watch the reader get all confused. An emoji, if deployed effectively, is the magic wand that has the power to circumvent, the Brahmastra that can prevaricate.

A couple of days ago, I was doing my best “busy man” impression, shuffling papers, hammering the calculator, doing just about enough to justify my meagre salary. Like any good, underpaid office-goer, my focus is nearly always more on gossip than actual work. In fact, my ears are genetically programmed to pick up on who’s sleeping with whom, who the boss humiliated recently, and other such matters of importance. That day, I overheard the boss instructing a colleague to email a difficult client about contracts, clauses, and changes, and to end the email with a smiley.

End an official email. To a client. With a smiley. Say what 😕

Young(er) readers may not know this, but there was a time when people didn’t use smileys, or even exclamation marks. I remember writing “u” (instead of you), and getting my arse whooped by my former boss. Those were the days, when we were encouraged to be professional, read uptight, at least at the workplace.

But today, you cannot escape the smiley.

It may have ruined language, but the smiley today has become the digital equivalent of the mint on your pillow – served to make up for everything from subpar service to low-thread count sheets.

The indispensable colon-bracket combo has been used by the best of us, to soften many a hard blow. If you want a team member to work late, just throw in something like, “Hey, you might have to work late, gotta meet a deadline 🙂.” Remove the smiley and you got a dick of a boss who is essentially saying “cancel your plans and bust your arse the whole night… ‘cause I said so.” Even the tone of dire a text like, “If I ever find you cheating on me, I will hunt you down and kill you” changes wholly with the effortless addition of the smiley. In the event of a murder, even the cops and courts are likely to ignore the text because… you know… a smiley at the end of a sentence can make the world a better place.

I recall diligently writing letters to my grandfather. (I thought he was rich and would remember me in his will. I was wrong on both accounts.) And I do remember that I once threw in the word “oops” in one of my letters. His reply to my mail started with a question, “What is an oops?”

It may have ruined language, but the smiley today has become the digital equivalent of the mint on your pillow – served to make up for everything from subpar service to low-thread count sheets. From friends we adore to colleagues we can’t stand, from seriously stingy clients to someone you’re seriously crushing on – there’s a whole gamut of unpleasant chatter that can be toned down with that decidedly useful smiley.

It comes as no surprise then that the powers that be figured – hell if a bracket and colon can wrought such wonders, may be there is a need for a whole line of little sign-offs that can help you punctuate a conversation with feelings. During this experiment with punctuations, they ushered in the Age of the Emoji with an army of tiny yellow faces to convey to the world what you’re saying with nuanced precision and add-on emotions.

So now you have a perfectly literate workforce, using the emoji right back at their passive-aggressive, smiley-obsessed bosses. If you’re running late, try this: Hey boss, daughter fell sick, taking her to the doc ☹

Now, what can the hapless boss do in the face of your sorrowful emoji? Nothing, except, perhaps respond with, “Hey, no problem. Take your time 🙂. But all the while he’s thinking,  “Beta, tu aa toh sahi , teri g**d maar ke na rakh du. ”

Welcome to a world where you never say what you mean and never mean what you say – courtesy the humble smiley.