Thumbs up and prayer hands to the power of emojis


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A new emoji has recently inveigled its way to the top of my favourites on my iPhone: the googly-eyed, tongue-lolling, mad smile one. Over the past few weeks, it has leapfrogged over my other two most-used emojis: the gritted teeth and the crying-with-laughter ones. I was perplexed. How and why did it get there? And what does it say about my mental state?

A fantastically fun but exhausting group holiday with 10 friends and their children, and one bathroom, definitely nudged it towards the top spot. The prospect of moving out of our house next week, the children going back to school and a new au pair arriving — all within days — might have something to do with it. And thrown into the mix, my mounting excitement about interviewing one of my culinary heroes, Claudia Roden, at the FT Weekend Festival next Saturday.

This particular emoji will of course mean different things to different people. It could mean a drunken night out, a crazy decision or even overwhelming desire. But for me, it just means overwhelm. And somehow, its prime position in my emoji charts has made it OK for me to give in to feeling a bit, well, tongue-lolling, googly-eyed, mad smile-ish.

We are using this prescribed set of emoji emotions more and more as a shorthand for our mental states. I have noticed that friends who were once stalwart emoji refuseniks have recently crumbled with the odd wink and smile. According to the website Emojipedia, one in five tweets now contains an emoji.

Of course, our emotional landscape is far more complex than anything that even a fleet of emojis can possibly convey. Yet we are increasingly squashing and simplifying ourselves into these little round avatars, rather than spelling out how we actually feel. And one of the reasons for this, I suspect, is that in our busy daily communications with one another, we don’t always have time or energy to explain, or to react with the right words, so a simple sad or happy face must suffice.

At the same time, it can also be strangely reassuring to fit your emotions into an emoji. The fact that there is an emoji out there to express roughly how you are feeling must mean that other people are feeling the same way too. That said, to Gen Z-ers, using an emoji literally to express a response or emotion is a sign of being ancient; to them, a smiley can only ever be ironic.

The other day, after a wonderful meal out, I was thinking: why is there no emoji for feeling full? Who is controlling it all? Emojis are in fact developed by Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation based in Mountain View, California, established in 1991. Its main purpose is to enable the use of multiple languages in computer and mobile phone software — no small feat — but it is better known for being the emoji police.

Unicode selects and creates new emojis each year based on submissions by individuals and businesses. Anyone can do this via an online form, but before you add your compelling case for your proposal, you have to read the Emoji Encoding Principles and scan the list of existing requests to make sure you don’t double up with others.

Currently, emojis for an acoustic guitar, an almond and an amoeba are all under consideration, and that is just the A’s. Various others, such as an emoji for acne, air conditioning, afro hair and an awesome face, have mysteriously been declined. The application form itself is admittedly off-putting. To get your awesome face wish granted, you would have to be extremely determined to navigate the system.

FT Weekend Festival

The festival is back and in person at Kenwood House (and online) on September 4 with our usual eclectic line-up of speakers and subjects. Infusing it all will be the spirit of reawakening and the possibility of reimagining the world after the pandemic. To book tickets, visit here

A while ago, after I wrote a column about my love of peas, I received an impassioned email from the “Yes Peas!” campaign, explaining that they were putting forward a proposal for a pea emoji. The argument was decent: “Plenty of household fruit and veg out there have their own emojis, and as Britain is 90 per cent self-sufficient in pea-growing, we think it’s high time we had our own!” When I scrolled down the Unicode consideration list and discovered that “Peas” were in the “Prioritisation Pending” category, I felt hopeful and excited. Or should I say, thumbs-up, clapping emoji, prayer hands?

New emojis are given final approval in September, and can take months to develop. There are whispers of a melting face, a saluting face and a low battery emoji in the pipeline. Until then, we will just have to make do with the range of emotions at our fingertips.

Rebecca Rose is editor of FT Globetrotter and the FT Weekend Festival — which this year takes place at London’s Kenwood House on Saturday 4 September (as well as online)

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