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Texts and emojis have changed how we talk to our loved ones

This writer finds that even the most obvious looking emoji might acquire new meanings between couples — a look at how this shapes relationships

Seven years since '😂' was made the Oxford Word of the Year, the world of communication for couples looks nothing like before.
Seven years since '😂' was made the Oxford Word of the Year, the world of communication for couples looks nothing like before. (Unsplash)

In the middle of a party that has tipped over into midnight, my phone buzzes with a text. It’s an inconspicuous sticker (to everyone but me) of a dog driving a car. The sender? My partner, standing just a few feet away. Seconds later, we’re exchanging goodbyes and see-you-laters. On the way back, we note how useful this arsenal of ciphered language proves to be sometimes. Ronan Keating's “you say it best when you say nothing at all” plays on the radio as I realise how little we need to voice to actually be heard.

How people in love communicate has come a long way since carrier pigeons, letters, Yahoo! Messenger, 100 SMS/day packs, and exchanging BBM pins as flirtation. The first text message was sent in 1992, six years before I was born. Thirty years later, telecom providers are mostly out of the picture and texting has been distributed all over the internet across countless messaging apps.

Rohan Nayyar, 26, and Pragya, 26, tell me how these changes keep their interactions fresh. Together since college, they have enjoyed adapting their conversations to the social media app that’s popular in a specific year — from maintaining 700-day-long streaks on Snapchat to feverishly sharing reels with each other over Instagram.

Although not a perfect substitute, texting makes up for “face-to-face interaction when it is not available,” corroborates a study on the impact of texting on relationship satisfaction. In his book The Emoji Code, which discusses the changes in communication in the digital era, Vyvyan Evans also postulates that technology doesn’t change the why of communication, but the how — creating “new avenues and opportunities” to have the same conversations we’d be having in person.

In a 2014 interview with The Atlantic, Stephen Pinker, an experimental psychologist with a special interest in language, denied that emojis are “the death of language.” Pinker argued that in the 1950s, F.L. Lucas, the famous English literary critic, suggested that language needed a punctuation mark that captured whether a sentence was written to be “ironic or in jest.” In 2015, the laughing emoji 😂 was named word of the year by the Oxford English Dictionary. Seven years and a thousand new emojis later, the world of communication for couples looks nothing like before.

It’s never been this easy to be this in touch

What makes texting appealing to couples? Often, it is the desire to stay in touch — even if it means exchanging banal trivia and boring updates.

For Nitya Bansal, 27, and her husband, texts sent throughout the day ease the long distance they endure as management consultants who travel. “There’s no expectation that when I text him that I will get an instant reply,” Bansal adds. She uses their chats as a “venting point” instead, a virtual diary entry of her thoughts that needn’t always be responded to.

Emojis aid this constant interaction by ensuring things aren’t lost in translation. “When we just use words, we don't know the tone of how the other person is saying it,” Krishna Sharma, 24, says, who has been dating his partner Aishani Puri, 24, for the last eight years. He adds how an omission or addition of stickers helps determine how a text should be received. “All our stickers are personalised,” he adds, referring to the ones he creates from “continuously click(ing) screenshots of video calls with her because she's so expressive.”

Friends for months before they recently got together, Meeta Khanna, 21, and her partner used emojis as a regular feature in their chats. Then, they would gamify their use: “We would take a song name, convert it into emojis, and then the other person has to guess which song it’s supposed to be.”

Emojis as a secret language for two

Their repeated use in conversations leads emojis to acquire special meanings. For Cynthia George, 31, and her husband, the hatching chick emoji 🐣 delivers a hug— its history nestled in how she introduced him to Instagram and its bounty of adorable animal videos.

Counterintuitively, for Puri and Sharma, the fiery red angry emoji 😡 communicates the “aggressive affection” they feel for each other. Pragya’s love language is similarly feisty, with adoration emoted via a sticker of a dog smacking another with a slipper.

For how much they mean in private chats, emojis also double as a code language that helps couples meander through tricky social situations. When Khanna’s social anxiety overwhelms her, a pigeon sticker labeled “anxiety” lets her partner know she wants a time-out from a party. And when gossip can’t quite be exchanged just yet, Bansal and her partner make do with the eye roll or side smirk emojis.

To fight or not to fight over text

For couples with discordant argumentation styles, texting encourages healthy conflict resolution and emojis provide a shorthand for heavy feelings — cutting the tension by sprinkling much-needed levity.

For Bansal and her husband, resolving a disagreement over text is smoother. “I’m much more vocal. I can think on the spot, come up with my point of view, and articulate it at the moment better than he can, while he needs time to think. He likes to take his time to calm down and then get back to me,” she adds.

While they rarely argue, Khanna and her partner like to end things on a good note. After an argument, a sticker-war concludes the battle. “We just keep sending stickers. It becomes a sticker war, and whoever sends a repeat sticker loses. It completely distracts us.”

The world of messaging then gives modern couples interesting ways to hash out disagreements and put them to bed.

All this praise comes with a warning: texting is not the best elixir for the soul. There’s the unflattering slouchy back or missing out on life “IRL.” Maybe there is even something more romantic about loving each other the old-fashioned way — with distance and yearning. But although absence makes the heart grow fonder, the thought of my partner being a few finger taps away on my phone after a long, hard day feels like a hot cup of tea coating a sore throat. And so I make peace with the heart never growing fonder and revel in the calm of his perpetual presence.

Delhi-based Nona Uppal writes on love and relationships. She is on Instagram @nonauppal

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