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The melting face emoji and the language of the internet

If you’re still texting people a simple smiley, chances are you’re offending them, especially if they’re under 25

A still from ‘The Emoji Movie’
A still from ‘The Emoji Movie’

The new “melting face” emoji has won itself fans around the world, who find it a spot-on representation of the past 18 months of living through a pandemic.

The yellow smiling face dissolving into a puddle is one of 37 new emojis approved this year by Unicode, the non-profit consortium that provides specifications for digital text. Along with a disco ball, a saluting face and a troll, the new emojis will roll out over the course of next year.

If you’re thinking it’s just a new set of images to add to your messages, you’re wrong. After all, emoji use keeps evolving. Surely you must be aware than most Gen Zers, born between 1997 and 2021, consider the laughing-crying emoji (the most used emoji of 2020) or the anxious face with cold sweat dripping over the top, even insincere?

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Millennials may have universalised texting, adding emojis and abbreviations, but it’s Gen Z that deployed them with flair to communicate subtler emotions from sarcasm to irony.

Linguists around the world concur that the vocabulary of these digital natives—the largest generation on the planet right now—is both complicated and ever-evolving. Social media platforms, meme pages, standup routines and rap songs influence how the two billion people in this cohort communicate online and offline. It can be a struggle to pick up this lexicon of adolescents and 20-somethings, roughly 30% of whom are from India.

“As styles are constantly changing, there’s no substitute to actually talking to members of this demographic and getting messages vetted to confirm this is how someone would actually communicate,” says popular internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch, in an interview with Wattpad, a social storytelling platform.

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Here’s a quick guide to what you shouldn’t be saying on social media (and yes, that includes WhatsApp):

No smiley faces

Gen Zers have banned most smiley-face emojis from their dictionary for being over-the-top. They’ve reverted to—wait for it—punctuation marks. Good ol’ ‘XD’ is the laughing emoji again. The heart emoji has been replaced with either an “<3” or an anatomical heart emoticon.

“Punctuation marks are a better alternative to emoticons, as most of us access apps from desktops instead of smartphones now [as we’re home during the pandemic],” says Srushti I, an 11th grade student from Solapur in Maharashtra.

37 new emojis have been approved this year by Unicode
37 new emojis have been approved this year by Unicode

The laughing emoji isn’t cool. Instead, convey the ‘died laughing’ sentiment with the skull emoji. A skull paired with a cross emoji (symbol of RIP) signifies ‘super funny’.

“We also use customised GIFs and stickers, and sometimes enact expressions of popular memes ourselves to convey our message,” says Apoorva Gupta, a Gen Z product analyst.

Emojis aren’t entirely cancelled, they’re just used differently. “My 15-year-old sister uses the crying emoji for something funny, while I might still use the grinning face with tears of joy,” says Bani Singh, 23, an entrepreneur building Now&Me, a mental health peer-to-peer platform.

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Say it right

Hyping has its own glossary in the virtual world, and it’s often preferred to the real one.

“You say things like ‘you look like a queen’ or compliment someone’s outfit by commenting ‘Pinteresty fit’ or ‘dank’ (slang for excellent) on their picture,” says Shambhavi S, 17, from Lucknow. “Compliments in the real world are rather plain. That’s why Gen Z prefers online friends to friends in real life because receiving compliments in the virtual world is quite rewarding.”

If the adolescents pay heed to your texting lingo, late teens expect political correctness in the language of those around them, says Sascha Kirpalani, 28, a psychotherapist specialising in counselling for adolescents and adults. A teenage client recently told her in the context of pronouns: “You don’t call them ‘preferred’ pronouns but ‘personal’ pronouns. It’s not preferred, it’s personal.”

A significant part of a Gen Zer’s day goes into explaining various abbreviations to their older siblings and parents. From wbk (we be knew, or we were aware of that) to IYKYK (if you know you know), the internet-first generation abbreviates a lot.

Older generations use too many words, says Srushti. “It’s not like their language is irrelevant, it’s just too formal. Like how when they want to say something offensive, they prefix “With all due respect” to it. We just add ‘lol’ (laughing out loud) at the end instead.”

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Show, don't tell

Gen Zers do not like to express themselves openly or directly. It’s among the reasons why they avoid emojis, which they consider too expressive. So, they find other ways to let the world know how they’re feeling.

“We disable our accounts, start blocking friends, then reactivate. If we’re angry we don’t reply to comments. If we’re s**tposting on Twitter, it means we’re not in a good mood but creating an illusion,” says Srushti. Writing obscure phrases in place of usernames is another way to let people know they are up to something.

“Every once in a while, I remove my WhatsApp display picture,” says Narasimhan, 20, from Chennai. “It is to get attention,” he admits, adding it often prompts friends to reach out thinking there’s something wrong.

Gen Z tends to have an alternate Instagram account called Finsta, or fake Instagram, “to connect with friends without the pressure of maintaining the Instagram aesthetic,” says Singh of Now&Me.

“These accounts are usually private but we give access to someone if we’re interested in them and want their attention,” says Simran Sachdeva, 21, from Delhi.

People in their ‘close friends’ list on Instagram are not necessarily their close friends but the non-judgemental ones.

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Texting in languages

For Anveita Kesar, language upgrades are confined to the online world. “Until we got phones, our language was the same as our parents. Only my texting style has changed now,” says the 14-year-old from Jammu, who speaks Dogri at home.

It is double the work to keep up with everything if one speaks multiple languages. For instance, in the Tamil meme community that runs on current affairs, “someone blabbers something on a news channel and that word trends for the next week,” thus becoming a part of the cool lexicon of the moment, explains Narasimhan. “You have to keep up. It can be tough work.”

Then there are situations when two contemporary lexicons clash unexpectedly, leading to an awkward exchange.

Srushti experienced it recently when she used “bc”, an abbreviation for “because” in the western Gen Z dictionary while replying to someone from India on Twitter. What the English- and Marathi-speaking student didn’t know, and was immediately informed by a friend, is that it’s also a widely-used abbreviation for a swear word in Hindi... “I’ve stopped using abbreviations on Twitter since,” she says.

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