The Peculiar Etiquette of Emoji Mirroring

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Emoji stress

I don’t know what it means to be “good” at emojis, but I can tell you that I’m definitely bad at them. For one thing, I can never remember where to find any of them among their many, ambiguously labeled category pages — I didn’t know where to find emojis in my phone period until more recently than I’d care to admit — and I’m constantly paranoid as to their secret double meanings. Eggplants are penises, and turkey legs may also be penises, and probably everything is supposed to be a penis and you’re just not telling me, right?

My boyfriend, an 8,000-year-old wizened demon trapped in the body of a deceptively normal-seeming twentysomething male human, has vowed to capital-N Never install them on his phone, and to ignore their existence altogether whenever possible. But look, okay, that’s not me. Despite my thumb-fingered incompetence, I actually really, really like emojis. They are weird little inexplicably adorable pictures of weird little inexplicably adorable things; what am I, some kind of monster?

But cute, and little, and inexplicably adorable though they may be, they’re also intimidating. One of the great delights and horrors of emojis is their sheer variety (with hundreds more on the horizon). Were you aware that there are two versions each of the hospital and the church, one with a heart (a birth! a wedding!) and one without (an illness! a funeral!)? [Ed. note: these “hospitals” are actually hotels. Molly is kind of bad at emoji.]

Church hospital emojis

I would like to be a person who is good at emojis, much as I would like to be a person who has the grammatical balls to use the exotically s-less plural form “emoji.” I would never like to be this person more than when I’m texting someone who is good at emojis. In fact, I find that I try very hard to be good at emojis, using more than I ever would organically, when I’m in conversation with someone who uses them frequently and fluently. Let’s call this emoji mirroring.

Mirroring, you see, is a thing. It’s a social phenomenon commonly observed in face-to-face, meatspace conversation, particularly among good friends. When you smile, I smile. When you touch my arm, I touch your arm. Verbal and nonverbal mimicry (which usually occurs subconsciously) builds rapport, via the golden psychological principle of liking people who like us back.

I can count on one hand (or one Waving Hand Emoji) the number of friends I regularly use emojis with, and that’s strictly as a result of their own emoji-laden output. In this, it turns out, I’m not alone. I spoke to a number of people, primarily women, who expressed that they found themselves dialing up their emoji use when in contact with emoji-happy friends.

Emoji game

“I don’t generally use them, but then I’ll find myself throwing in a Flamenco Lady, Pizza, or Poop solely to keep up,” one says. “It seems rude not to reciprocate,” another explains.

Once the emoji tone has been set — fun! wacky! vaguely Internet-y! — you kind of have to stick with it. When you’ve been on the opposite side of this (which, at some point, everyone has), you know it’s true: if you take the emoji jump and the other person doesn’t respond in kind, it can be a little uncomfortable. You don’t want to be left hanging.

Laura describes herself as “emoji contagion” personified, and has the Facebook profile picture of herself dressed as one half of the Cat Girls Emoji for Halloween to prove it. When it comes to pushing emojis on her friends and loved ones, she’s “relentless.”

“I’ve finally, finally convinced my best friend (who hates them) to download them on her phone, and have even gotten a begrudging smiley face out of the deal,” she says.

Laura and other emojivangelists are quick to extol their virtues. For instance, an emoji can work beautifully as a symbolic means of ending a conversation on a positive note, like a “goodbye fave” on a Twitter canoe or a Facebook like to politely excuse yourself from an ongoing comment thread. But ideally, Laura jokingly suggests, communication would have transitioned entirely into emoji form long before that point.

Emoji screenshot

Why do we emoji? Number one, it’s fun (again: weird, little, inexplicably adorable). As another faithful emoji user points out, it can also be a defense mechanism. “When I’m being shy and I don’t know what to say,” she explains, “Say it with a random emoji!”

In the same way that the exclamation point has become more or less “mandatory” to avoid seeming rude or cold in an email, emojis have emerged as a new kind of de facto digital etiquette. Emoji mirroring is its own means of broadcasting non-threatening, self-effacing friendliness, like a dog rolling on its back to expose its belly. Therein lies the anxiety: it’s bullshit. “I’m not taking myself seriously, nor am I trying too hard” is the cheery sentiment that my emojis are meant to convey — those being the emojis I devoted multiple minutes of my life to choosing, all the while squinting hopelessly at them like they’re part rebus and part Rorschach inkblot (because, penises?). It makes me feel like a fraud, because that awkward self-consciousness negates the breezy intimacy on emoji mirroring’s surface.

Emoji screenshot

But I can’t say this enough: I remain pro emoji, despite my own clumsy history with the medium. Even emoji mirroring itself can be a lovely thing. My friend Kyle rarely used emojis until six months ago. But his girlfriend used them a lot, and so he began to mirror her until, eventually, he wholeheartedly adopted them himself. Now that they’re in a long-distance relationship, they’ve each developed an “emoji signoff” to indicate that they’re going to bed: she’ll send the heart and penguin emojis (his favorite animal) and he’ll reciprocate with the heart and frog (her favorite). Pretty sweet, right?

Short of signing a global emoji mirroring disarmament treaty, I’m going to do my best to emoji more mindfully, and save Poop and Pizza and Flamenco Lady for when I really need (and mean) them. It’s what they deserve.


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