Home >Opinion >Columns >Ninety-six shades of emotion in today’s age of emojis
Clearly, an emoji is better than a thousand words when it comes to expressing emotions.
Clearly, an emoji is better than a thousand words when it comes to expressing emotions.

Ninety-six shades of emotion in today’s age of emojis

The hullabaloo on TV over a young woman’s alleged role in an actor’s shortened life makes one wonder why facial expressions, or a lack thereof, are taken so easily as signifiers of ‘guilt’

I watch in awe the benumbing spectacle of people feeding voyeuristically off what has taken over “Prime Time" news. As TV channels play out an interview with the “prime suspect" in the alleged homicide/suicide of a popular young actor, and one gets intimate details of a relationship gone wrong, my mind is in a whirl. I am not so bothered by the presence (or lack thereof) of “evidence" that may incriminate the young woman on our screens. Rather, I wonder how human beings can respond to faces and emotions portrayed as indicators of guilt or otherwise, and mentally condemn them.

Our social interactions, especially in the pre-pandemic world of physical meet-and- greet, have drawn upon our reading of faces. This has been stretched into the digital domain as well, and I have received emojis expressing every conceivable emotion from people of varied social groups. A “hugging face" or a “face blowing a kiss" sent by a female friend is likely to be received warmly, while the response may not be so certain if sent by a stranger, especially of the opposite gender. My heart goes out to students who surreptitiously exchange emojis of yawning faces on Whatsapp as they sit through hours and hours of online classes.

Clearly, an emoji is better than a thousand words when it comes to expressing emotions. I decided to check the number of emoji faces available for use. The Unicode page reveals 96 face emojis listed currently. “A smiling face with a tear" to show that you are “feeling touched" is among the recent additions to this list, and this list is only likely to get longer in the future. Clearly, the battle of displaying emotions is going to get even more intense.

Facial emotions constitute a universal language. A Dutch friend of mine, for example, uses the same emoji of a “smiling face with heart eyes" on Instagram as another friend from Nairobi, and the two would need no lessons in cross-cultural communication to understand these emotions.

What could explain the universality of such facial expressions? It would appear that, as in most cases associated with behavioural theory, the innate nature of facial expressions and their homogeneity across cultures would have to do with the Darwinian theory of evolution. Research suggests that facial expressions which would have signalled an existential threat have guided us humans to take appropriate action aimed at self-preservation. Similarly, by the Darwinian theory of natural selection, faces that spelt warmth and invitation may have meant higher chances of “biological fitness" through reproductive success.

However, facial emotions are plagued by gender stereotypes and biases. Ironically, these are also universal. Women are perceived to be more emotional than men, including in their decision-making. At the same time, women are typically also seen as less prone to expressing emotions typically seen as more masculine, such as those of anger and pride. The problem with these perceptions is that they mistakenly equate the emotions experienced with what gets displayed.

Culturally, almost universally, it is the woman who is supposed to infuse emotion into her roles as mother, daughter, wife, daughter-in-law and sister. The display of such emotions in a professional sphere, however, is often seen as an indicator of weakness, even worthy of punishment. A male who tears up may, on the other hand, be actually seen as vulnerable, “human", and a better leader than one who is in greater control over his emotions. Conversely, a woman who is less self-effacing, more confident and forceful in her personal or professional life is seen as having qualities with negative valence. The very same qualities in a male are seen as highly positive and are feted and celebrated. One has only to think of Barack Obama versus Indira Gandhi or Margaret Thatcher to see how widespread these prejudices based on perceptions of gender-based emotions really are.

The manner in which men and women are supposed to respond to certain stimuli are equally likely to be subject to gender-based biases. Death, as a phenomenon, calls for emotions on a grand scale, and who better for this than women? This would explain the custom in states like Rajasthan of upper castes hiring a group of professional mourners, usually women of lower caste, called rudaalis, who were engaged to publicly display grief after men died. Captured in the 1993 film Rudaali, social status considerations prevented overt shows of grief on the part of other family members, and led to the hiring of these women. It is inconceivable that such a task of professional mourning could be carried out by men.

That brings us to the curious case of a national obsession with face reading having joined forces with a supposedly “unemotional" Rhea Chakraborty on TV, responding to external stimuli, to pronounce a “guilty" verdict based on the lack of—or contrarian—emotions on display. The only thing she may really be guilty of, perhaps, is not knowing which of the 96 emoji faces she should’ve put on display in her unmasked avatar for TV cameras.

Tulsi Jayakumar is professor of economics at SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai. These are the author’s personal views

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