In Defence of the Smiley

I am a copywriter by profession. It is a profession that demands meticulous attention to grammar, spelling and punctuation. The meticulous is often so demanding that it is beyond human ability – after all a badly spelled advertisement can make a brand look cheap and imitative. You'd think a person like me would be very 'pucca English' and have no tolerance for smileys. Yet, I love them.

To a great extent, I am an old-fashioned stickler for propriety in language. But, as only a copywriter can understand, the purpose of language is as a vehicle to get the message across. And I have to get the message across to my targetted audience because I want them to buy what my ad is trying to sell to them. If I cannot communicate, I starve.

So I endorse Hinglish. Those of the old school might frown at it (while using it in quotidian life unsuspectingly), but it has evolved in just a generation from a characterless pidgin to a stable language. And it has given us some of the most clever phrases of our generation. "Yeh Dil Maange More" was once an ad slogan for Pepsi, it has now become an icon of our country's new and confident identity. Capt. Vikram Batra memorably made it a cry of victory in the Kargil War.

And so I endorse smileys too. Whoever invented this curious use of punctuation symbols, please stand up. I want to salute you. If it were in my hands, I would hand you the Nobel, Booker, Gyanpeeth, Pulitzer, Goncourt, Neustadt, Sahitya Academy and other Prizes in literature. For no invention has done more for the written word than the smiley has, ever since the Egyptian God Thoth invented writing five millennia ago.

Imagine you are someone with a sarcastic and ironic bent of mind, as I am. Everything you say can have at the least a second, caustic meaning, if not a third. Now you want to send an SMS to someone saying something in earnest, not sarcasm, like "Thanks for inviting me to dinner. The food was fantastic".

In normal life, the receiver of this compliment would have sent back a rude SMS and broken all contact with me. Because in normal life, such a comment by me would ordinarily mean, "Your dinner invitation was completely hell. The conversation was boring, your wife is hideous and there is no beggar so lacking in self-respect that he would eat your food."

But no. You send exactly the same message, with a colon and a closing bracket tacked on at the end, viz. "Thanks for inviting me to dinner. The food was fantastic :)"

The recipient gets a beep on their cellphone, whips it out, and begins to read. The first sentence, when decoded, reads, "Your dinner invitation was completely hell." The temper rises, the veins throb, the eyes redden.

They carry on to the second sentence, and decode it as, "The conversation was boring, your wife is hideous and there is no beggar so lacking in self-respect that he would eat your food." The blood boils, the teeth gnash, the mind is racing to compose something nasty.

The eyes suddenly notice a :) The rude reply being composed in the mind is arrested. The :) has just signalled to the code-interpreting part of the brain. The ordinary code interpretation guide is not to be used. Switch to the alternate interpretation guide.

The recipient goes back to the message and decodes the first sentence. It now reads, "Thanks for inviting me to dinner." A warm glow envelopes the recipient.

They decode the second sentence. It reads, "The food was fantastic". A smile breaks out. One has been thanked for the invitation and been appreciated for the food. The mind is overwhelmed, and rashly rushes to type, "You are welcome  anytime." The send button is hit before the rashness of the act is discovered.

Exactly two characters, among the many that were invented by printers in Venice in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Which had no role in language till then, and still have none in spoken language. (With the possible exception of 'air quotes'.) But they manage to change the instructions for reading the message. And created an emotional reaction opposite to the one expected. Brilliant, isn't it?

For years, writers have grappled with the matter - how does one express emotion in cold print? Aristophanes, Kalidasa, Shakespeare and Moliere took the easy way out. They wrote plays, and got hold of actors to literally play out the emotions they wanted. Valmiki, Vyasa, Homer and other epic writers resorted to long, long descriptions. Set to music and sung, these can be quite moving. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Raja Rao, Primo Levi and other novelists used tricks of plot, dialogue and situation. And over centuries, we had a bag of tricks to deal with the problem. Elegant. All of them. Clear? None of them.

And then came the smiley. Crude symbols made from strange combinations of punctuation marks. Invented by someone who probably could not have succeeded in putting a 13-word sentence together. Certainly not elegant. Spread, like the proverbial wildfire, through SMS users. Not through the sort of people who consider War and Peace as light reading.

A colon and closing bracket, and suddenly it means that the user is communicating the mood and tone of the communication, not merely its content. A colon and opening bracket sends a signal that the user is sad about whatever that user has written.

"Sorry that you lost your BB :(", implies real sorrow. It tells the reader that the sender of the message is not opening a bottle of champagne to celebrate your loss, even if you did irritatingly flaunt that smartphone for several weeks. It tells the reader that the sender of the message is sorry.

A semicolon and a closing bracket can have quite nuanced meanings.

"I love you ;)" could, depending on context, imply that I love you in earnest and that it is a joy shared in private by us; or that I love you but I'd like to keep my options open in case the relationship does not work out. A cold, dry message in black-and-white typed letters on a computer screen could never have communicated that. You would never know if 'love' meant love or hate or bet-hedging or indifference or impatience, were there no smiley at the end instructing you how to read the sentence.

Then of course we have :D (mischievous grin), ;D (very mischievous grin), :/ (I'm not impressed). These are just few of a vast and growing lexicon of symbols, as each tries to capture a nuance of mood. Some may be quite cryptic to the uninitiated, but nowadays we have phone models and internet chat messengers that automatically convert them to cute yellow faces. Which is nice, because looking at a round, smiling face can give you such a warm, cared-for feeling.

One is yet to see them in writing any longer than a text message or 'tweet'. But I argue that is merely a matter of bias, not a comment on their utility. The novel-writing industry, having invented a number of tricks, will naturally loathe to see an upstart device. Especially when it promises to reduce the amount of sentimental-sounding gibberish and increase the clarity of expression. The counterattack by the novelists would be to cry "unpoetic".

But as it is said of scientists, new ideas get adopted not because old scientists adopt them, but because old scientists die and new scientists take their place. Similarly as the old order gives way, the smiley will take its full and rightful place in human literature. Up from the comments section, into the main body of the blog post :)


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