Because there just aren’t words for some feelings

Jana + Koos


“I feel like we need to get emojis printed and put them on sticks so we can pull them out in real life so people know how we really feel.”

This is what my friend Emily says to me the other day over Facebook chat. Emily and I spend a lot of time chatting over Facebook. Intermittently through the day, and sometimes for long periods at night. Sometimes hours will pass. Sometimes we write in words but mostly we communicate via screenshots and emojis. The average conversation goes something like this:

[screenshot of something funny]
[laughing crying emoji x ten]
[screenshot of someone posting annoying status on Facebook]
[knife and hammer emojis and crazy face emoji]
[snake and spider emojis]
[screenshot of one of our animals – my cat or her pugs]
[heart eyes emoji, heart emojis, sparkle emojis]

If the FBI were to hack our chats with their new iPhone hacking technology, they might think that Emily and I are illiterate idiots who were homeschooled by cartoon characters off the back of cereal boxes. Or maybe they’d think we were neglected kids who wiled away our childhoods in gaming arcades and learnt to communicate using Nintendo symbols before we learnt to read. Certainly, they would not guess that we were both accomplished writers and strategists, both entrusted with intellectually steering big budget marketing decisions, and conveying large and complex amounts information to key corporate decision makers. In fact the FBI is far more likely to suspect that we are members of a strange reptile-worshipping cult of which drug-taking is a mandatory aspect, were they to come upon the conversation consisted literally two hours of discussion over snakes prompted and peppered by the generous use of the small green snake emoji, which both of us use simply because sending it to each other makes us laugh out loud. Why? Don‚Äôt ask why. This is the weird stuff lifelong friendships are made of.


“For the murderous, emoji is generous.”


Things we chatted about during The Great Snake Chat of 2016 No 4 (there were several) included: whether we should get matching snake emoji tattoos, what kind of snakes we‚Äôd be (she‚Äôd be an Anacondion – Anaconda x Lion, and I’d be Mamba #5, a Karl Lagerfeld-esqe Black Mamba with a white stripe down its side), how we‚Äôd glide around and what we‚Äôd say as snakes to the world, what our snake personalities would be like. We exchanged images of Anacondion and Mamba #5 with captions. Each made us use laugh-cry emojis and coffin emojis (because we were dead from laughing so much) and induced the use of more snake emojis. Most of our conversation was about how cute the snake emoji is. No, really. How much both of us identify with it.

Do we particularly like snakes? Not really. Emily is kind of scared of them and I am indifferent. But the snake emoji – we LOVE the snake emoji with an irrational, hissy kind of love.

[insert painting nails emoji here, and many many snake emojis]

Jana + Koos

On another day, the FBI might find me and Emily simply listing our favourite ‘murder emojis’, which may put us on some kind of terrorist watch list, but I would caution them to think twice before seeing violence in emoji as an indicator of violence in real life. In fact, it facilitates less violence in real life. Using murderous emojis helps us both feel better on days where we’re taking strain. Both of us work in and around advertising Р‘nuff said. Luckily emoji has many options through which you can express your rage, including the hammer, the sword, the sword crossed with the hammer, the knife, the gun, the bomb, the glaring eye, the mad mask face (gets used a lot), the coffin, the scorpion, the spider, the hole (through which you can drop your enemies)… for the murderous, emoji is generous. Instead of murdering our colleagues, friends and partners, we tap out a list of cute but deadly fantasy weapons and manage to be nice to everyone for another day. We keep our jobs, our relationships stay intact. Our therapists are both amused, and encouraging. Look at emoji helping people get along. Look at that transformation of base metal murderous emotion to gold at the tap of a button.

[sparkles emoji, maybe the diamond emoji for good measure, and the dancing lady – don’t forget the dancing lady – she is ever triumphant, a woman of our time]


“I just think it’s a bit inappropriate to be using little pictures when you‚Äôre in your thirties,” he said.


I once dated a guy who went silent every time I used an emoji in our text exchanges. Which is to say he went silent a lot, which would lead to me ignoring him as this made for bad conversation, and then he’d get upset. Needless to say this relationship didn’t go anywhere, mostly because I stopped replying to him after the second date. If he didn’t go silent, he’d try to belittle me by replying with something along the lines of “What does that little face thing mean?” or “So are you a red devil then?‚Äù [cringe face emoji x 5]

Eventually he came out with it over dinner – he was judging me for using emojis. He was, you see, above all of that, one of the stoics who still write out their text messages in full sentences. An emoji snob, and someone who still seemed to believe that full sentences were indicative of some kind of moral superiority ie: a humourless bore. An out-of-touch, humourless bore at that, clearly unaware that the Oxford English dictionary had named the ‘tears of joy’ emoji their word of the year last year.

“I just think it’s a bit inappropriate to be using little pictures when you‚Äôre in your thirties,” he said.
[insert eye roll emoji here, followed by knife, followed by gun]
‚ÄúBut it‚Äôs a global lingua franca,‚Äù I said. “In fact it‚Äôs the only real global lingua franca that’s ever existed.‚Äù
[insert smug smirk emoji, maybe a painting nails emoji]
‚ÄúI‚Äôve never thought of it like that,” he said thoughtfully, chewing over some pasta.
Which is slightly ironic, since he was a language teacher by profession.
[insert frog face emoji here x 5]

Ciara Moore

There are still sects of society that judge those who emoji, and yes, I am using it as a verb. It‚Äôs lumped in an unholy ‚Äòkids of today‚Äô category and relegated to the same list of sins as using ‚Äòu‚Äô instead of ‚Äòyou‚Äô, the first horseman of the illiteracy apocalypse. Except it‚Äôs no longer found only in the text messages of the young and the millennial – emoji has become downright functional, tonally imbued with nuance and cultural references that transcend the digital keyboard and live on billboards, in TV ads and – gasp – real life. I know what I’m wearing next Halloween! (Poop emoji) Emoji use in marketing emails – so emails from brands to customers – increased by 7,123 percent in the last year alone. There is not a creative in advertising who has not been asked to ‘do something with emojis‚Äô so that brands can better connect with their young audiences. I have been caught in decision-making meetings that last for over an hour, agonising over whether to put the brown leaf emoji in with the swaying reeds for an autumnal campaign. Is one emoji ever enough? Or do we need a red wine emoji too? If you pick up a Coca Cola in store you’ll notice a smiling emoji face where once there was a name. Lindt has also jumped on the bandwagon, producing emoji greeting-style chocolates. Pepsi is gearing up to roll out a multi-platform campaign across their packaging and products based on emoji. Clearly it‚Äôs, um, a thing.


But if the ancient Egyptians and all their advanced maths entrusted their knowledge to a language made up of snakes, eyes and dog heads, why shouldn’t we entrust emoji with the complex task of conveying how we feel?


And for good reason. Emojis do what they say on the box – they convey emotion, and us humans have always liked to express and receive emotion through images. We‚Äôve done it since we were cavemen, and we did it when we could build pyramids without the aid of bulldozers and cranes. We adorned the walls of those pyramids that took us years to build with thousands of hieroglyphs aka vintage emojis, the true meaning of which historians can only really guess at. But if the ancient Egyptians and all their advanced maths entrusted their knowledge to a language made up of snakes, eyes and dog heads, why shouldn‚Äôt we entrust emoji with the complex task of conveying how we feel? Images are the first piece of information our brain processes. Thought travels at 286km/hr, faster than the speed of light (unless you’re drunk, just a friendly FYI) so sending an emoji immediately gives the other person not only the framework of what you’re feeling, which is what words do, but something close to the feeling, too. This article refers to emoji as a ‚Äòfourth quadrant’ of communication, a whole new dimension. A picture paints a thousand words, show don’t tell, and all that. Emoji actually enables the less articulate of us, no matter what the snobs say. Not the Queen‚Äôs English perhaps, but‚Ķ unless we’re talking about Beyonce, who cares anymore, right?

[girl holding her hands above her head emoji, crown emoji]

downloadEmoji is like a game in which you attribute values or badges to things that you encounter in your world, real or digital. That there‚Äôs room for interpretation is both the frustration and the challenge. Using emoji is fun. It’s like image tennis, in which you get to serve alligators, lob burning bombs and volley er, trams. For some reason there are loads of tram options. Conveying real meaning through these cutesy images that elicit an emotional reaction or express one is an art. The power to move a person to ‚Äòtears of laughter‚Äô emoji using [descending ski tram] is one hell of a trip. It‚Äôs also a fucking disco if you‚Äôre lazy and have text fatigue, which all of us do, thanks to the endlessly rising sea of content, photos, articles, messages and likes that threaten to drown us all at any given time. The right emoji can diffuse all that angst. Because there just aren‚Äôt words for some feelings.

[insert the broken heart emoji]

Similar to fashion, emoji is a language game you opt into, and if you decide you’re not playing, those who are will keep playing without you. Those who don’t speak emoji live outside the cultural commentary apparent to those who do. And that’s okay. There’s a pond for everyone [green frog face here]. Not that I’m judging you. Right now I’m completely panicked trying to find the right murder emoji to send to Emily to describe how I feel about the fact that someone just used an Instagram filter I hate. [insert ticking bomb emoji here, followed by iPhone emoji, followed by the red crazy face demon thing, followed by, of course, THE SNAKE].

Jana + Koos


Alex van Tonder is a writer, creative director and author of This One Time.

Artwork by Jana + Koos with Ciara Moore (not today satan)


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