The withheld smiley

Here’s my September column for AVENUE magazine.

The written word, as we all know, is a wonderful thing. As it has done over the centuries, it constantly shapes and remoulds itself to suit our contemporary needs. What fascinates me most of all about text communication is the ingenious ways in which we bend it so that it includes the very non-verbal information it’s supposed to lack.

Perhaps the most obvious and well-known way of doing this shorthand today is through the use of smileys. Those cute little sideways faces are an easy way of showing happiness, amusement, cheekiness and sarcasm, although technically they’re not as such an employment of the written word (they’ve elbowed their way in). Of course, smileys exist for negative emotions also; but the thing with negative smileys is they’re not quite really, well, negative enough. The very word, ‘smiley’, after all, hardly sits with any attempt to express genuine anger or despair; whether it’s a sad-faced open bracket you’re using or a thin-lipped lower-case l, negative smileys are still just too cute and clever to be taken all that seriously. Using them to communicate genuine states of displeasure is a bit like announcing you’ve been made redundant through an arrangement of alphabet noodles. For all their valiant efforts, they’re ultimately best suited to expressing the milder side of negativity, such as inconvenience or a smattering of frustration.  “That book I ordered by Huckleberry Hax still hasn’t arrived yet :( ”.  That sort of thing.

When it comes to real annoyance, real anger, real miserableness, we turn to a different, far more subtle set of strategies. Whenever we’re feeling really low, after all, we lack the energy and emotional literacy to simply tell people what we’re feeling – and don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean.  Instead of simply saying how we feel, we offer up clues to our dearest and closest so that they might infer our emotional state. In RL, these clues are relatively obvious and include: The Silent Treatment, stomping about, applying significantly more pounds per square inch than required when returning objects to a surface. And so on. In text, it’s a lot harder. Smileys are still a notable part of our strategy, but they’re now notable chiefly through their absence: when we’re really pissed off in text, we withhold them. All of them. Deciphering the meaning of an absent smiley is a complex issue. Here is my brief guide to this art form.

The Greeting Without Smiley (GWS)

Withholding smileys can be a very powerful form of expression, particularly in the initial IM greeting. There are two essential forms of this action. The first – opening an IM exchange without a smiley – is relatively moderate in its severity as a face slap. Starting a conversation, then, with:

Someoneyouknow Resident: hi

is usually a communication that translates along the lines of, “I’m feeling low and I’d appreciate it if you ask me how I am (I’ll probably reply with, ‘I’m fine’, but rest assured any negativity you then subsequently experience from me will be far less than if you hadn’t asked).” Receiving such a message when you weren’t expecting it is often accompanied by a feeling no more serious than “It looks like a significant percentage of my carefree evening in the metaverse can be written off, then; I suppose I’d better ask what’s wrong.”

The Reply Without Smiley (RWS)

The second form of this strategy, however, is far more biting. This is to wait for your close friend or partner to greet you with their own smiley and then to reply without one:

You: hey there :)

Someoneyouknow Resident: hey

Depending on the closeness of the relationship you have with your correspondent, this could mean anything from, “I denounce your generally cheerful state as naïve, bourgeois ignorance of the pain I suffer; I doubt very much you could have the merest hint of insight into it” to “You, buddy, are in serious trouble”. The length of the pause between the greeting and the reply is especially significant: too long, and the recipient might assume the sender to have been AFK or in another conversation, their non-smileyness connected to an entirely external issue; too short and the apparent eagerness to deliver the absent smiley might be inferred by the recipient to mean that the sender was strategically waiting for the greeting, their non-smiley reply prepared and awaiting the fall of the enter key – it might just possibly be a bluff, a pretence at anger to distract from a deeper issue:

You: hey there :) [thinks, “If I start cheerful, she might feel less threatened by a conversation about why we’ve not been spending time together recently”].

Someoneyouknow Resdient: hey [thinks, “If I fake anger over him being on half an hour later than usual, perhaps he won’t ask me difficult questions”].

The Reply Without Smiley is the wrong-footing technique of the text conversation world; it leaves the smiling initiator suddenly knowing they’ve completely misjudged the direction from which the correspondent is coming and defenceless to make any sort of powerful return. To the Greeting Without Smiley, of course, there is always the option to reply in kind, to answer the sender’s grimace with your own: “I’ll see your pain and match it,” you can nonverbally reply; the opening moves of a game I refer to as ‘Pissed Off Poker” (POP):

Someoneyouknow Resident: hi

You: hey

But to the RWS, any attempt to imply your own annoyance following that initial smile – that gawping, inane, frankly idiotic grin – is certain to be met with failure. A smiley smiley, once offered, cannot be taken back.

Adding extra bite to the withheld smiley

Veterans of POP will know that there are, of course, a number of additional techniques to strengthen a RWS or own opening gambit. Capital letters and full-stops (or ‘periods’, as I understand they’re called in the US) are one such play. Restraint from the use of familiar forms of greeting is another.

You: Hello.

is, therefore, a hard GWS that signifies trouble and only trouble lies ahead for the recipient. On the other hand:

Someoneyouknow Resident: hi

You: Hello.

is the POP equivalent of “I’ll see your pain and raise you my misery”. Finally:

Someoneyouknow Resident: hey there :)

You: Hello.

is the ultimate in RWS replies – less of a slap across the face and more of a punch to the nose – and to be used very sparingly. Incidentally, those of you who insist on initial letter capitalisation and full punctuation in every IM you write might like to rethink this approach: your ‘Hello.’ will be greatly diminished in its power as a result.

[Even more incidentally, whilst we’re on the subject of literary pedantry, if you’re one of those people who just can’t lower yourself to the pictorial arrangement of alphanumeric characters, “/me smiles” is not the grammatically correct equivalent of “:)” – the fact you’ve gone to the effort of typing the extra four characters makes it a non-spontaneous smile; thought through; calculated; possibly insincere. Don’t like that? Go to the extra effort of writing “/me smiles warmly” or “/me smiles in delight” then.]

Responding to the withheld smiley

What options remain to the recipient of a RWS? It all depends. There will be those times when your reaction to one of these is a genuine ‘huh?’ and a frantic searching of recent memories for clues of something you should feel guilty about: profiles will be hurriedly examined for their rez dates (if you can enter a “Happy Rez Day!!” within ten seconds of a RWS, you might just pull it off as an unresearched comment; you can be fairly certain, however, that you’ll be in a busy region in such moments and profiles will take no fewer than 90 minutes to rez), IM logs will be rapidly scrutinised for mention of RL issues you should have attended to better. If nothing is discovered, one option is to take the ‘standby gambit’ and just await a further response (depending on the circumstances, this will either reward you with an eventual comment that strengthens your position – since it betrays your partner’s desire to speak with you – or it will result in a silence until logoff for which you will pay dearly at a later date – probably with your life). Another is to overcommit to happy smileys in every subsequent comment as some sort of stubborn, post-hoc rationalisation of cheerfulness, slapping them merrily to the end of every sentence visible. For example:

You: hey there :)

Someoneyouknow Resident: Hello.

You: how are you? :)

effectively says, “I refuse to succumb to your attempts at reducing my well-earned positivity”. It’s a bit like those Facebook picture-quotes on happiness and love and not changing that you sometimes find yourself wishing you could roll into a cone and use to stab the poster in the eye.

But there will also be those times when you know full well why you haven’t received, won’t go on to receive and – quite possibly – don’t deserve to receive a smiley in reply to your greeting. To this, I can only ask, why the hell did you open with a smiley in the first place? Talk about just asking to be slapped.

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