Essays & Criticism 0

Lost in Translation


Emojis and text language have become a huge part of how we communicate, but there are still plenty of opportunities for misinterpretation.

I once sent my stepmom a lengthy text to thank her for some of the things she had done for me and only got “:)” as a response. Uh, what is that supposed to mean? To me, the smiley face meant that she was not engaged in what I was saying and wanted the conversation to end. When I brought it up to her jokingly I found out that to her, the old-school emoji was intended to be friendly response back and not a conversation ender.

Being in college, communication with my parents primarily exists over the phone. This is different from my friends, who I text to coordinate plans with or tell stories to throughout the day over group chat. Text messaging and phone conversations allow me to check in with my parents and convey essential information. Since my friends live so close, text messaging is not our main form of communication and so it is used more to talk about everyday occurrences such as what someone saw on campus or where we should go for dinner.

The difference between these relationships is that I see my friends daily but rarely see my parents. When people don’t have the frequent in-person interactions that are vital to understanding someone’s message, it can be easy for miscommunications to occur.

Amy Gebka, a masters student in communication studies and a communications instructor, believes that miscommunications happen over text because they do not convey the full message and are more broken up than in-person conversations. With in-person communication, it is easier to take conversational turns and interpret feedback. For example, when I am texting, it is easy to send and receive texts simultaneously or send multiple texts before getting feedback from the other person.

Unfortunately, when there is no tone or visuals to go along with messages, the meaning is often times left up to our interpretations and expectations. According to psychologist Melissa Ritter’s article “Why is There So Much Miscommunication Via Email and Text” from Psychology Today, our feelings and relationship to the person sending the text message generally dictate how we will receive messages. The best way to solve this problem is to not respond immediately, which can fuel the fire, and think about else the sender could have meant.

Facial expressions and other nonverbal cues, like body language, are crucial in helping us to better understand the people we talk to. When we communicate through phone in a text-based manner, we are deprived of that ability, which can lead to miscommunication. Yalda T. Uhls conducted a study in 2014 which analyzed children at camp without devices. After five days, these children could understand the emotions of facial expressions and identify the emotions of actors in scenes significantly better than a control group that kept their electronic devices.

According to Mary Moore, instructor of communication studies at Ball State University, language is not sufficient enough to completely capture our thoughts. As an example, Moore talked about how simple words, such as snow, have many words for snow among cultures because of how many forms snow comes in. When there are no non-verbals like facial expressions, pauses, gestures, and tone of voice, you lose out on most of the meaning. In fact, Moore claims that 93 percent of a message’s meaning comes from those nonverbal elements other than words. Also, Moore talked about the relational component instead of the actual content of a message which, to be conveyed, needs the facial expressions and tone of voice to go along with it.

The widespread usage of smartphones is relatively new. According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent of adults in the United States have a smartphone as of 2015 whereas only 23 percent did as recently as 2011. This means that using phones as a source of communication throughout our daily lives is relatively recent, and requires us to make changes in the way that we perceive and use that communication.

As a Millennial, it is hard for me to remember the recency of cell phone usage because I have had a cell phone for the majority of my life. I have cycled through a flip phone, a phone with a sliding keyboard, a Blackberry, and then several iPhones.

This has changed the way I fundamentally communicate arguably more than it has for people of other generations because I automatically turn to my phone to contact people through various mediums such as text messages, Snapchat, phone calls, group messages, and Twitter as a way to quickly exchange information or to get in contact with people in person.

In my experience, people of my generation use more of a variety of platforms to contact each other. Since coming to college, I have found that Snapchat has become one of my primary means of communication due to its popularity among my friends and the campus as a whole. Many times, my parents have asked me how it works and why I send pictures of myself or my surroundings to my friends in a Snapchat instead of texting them. I have also had to explain the chat feature of Snapchat and how it is different than text messaging.

Our phones are not only constantly evolving in their abilities and styles, but the role that they play in our everyday lives is also ever-changing. Over time, they have become a more dominant way to communicate with others. According to Moore, the internet used to be vastly different and was known as “telenet,” which she used while in college and was a more limited, text-based form of communication that allowed users to interact with people only if they were in close proximity. After that, the next development was the World Wide Web. The way we communicate now is dominated by text messaging, video calling, and social media.

The rise of the smartphone brought with it a change in our communication style: one that doesn’t necessarily require face-to-face interaction and doesn’t usually allow for essential nonverbal cues to let people know what we mean. According to Moore, emojis have the ability to add more clarity to messages that are ambiguous. In communication, there are lean and rich channels and, as discussed by Moore, emojis have the ability to add richness to lean channels. For example, different colored hearts have the ability to make a more distinct message, communicating different kinds of love that can come off as more platonic based on the color and number of hearts used.

The most common emoji that I receive over text is overwhelmingly the laughing emoji. I think that this is because it adds a lightness and a more fun tone to the text even if it wasn’t an intentionally funny message. I believe it also has the ability to clarify the intended humor in a message that might otherwise be misunderstood.

According to Moore, one of the major effects of cell phone usage on our communication is that it eliminates solitude in our everyday lives, which is essential to our well being and happiness in relationships. If you are involved in conflict, a good solution is usually time spent thinking about the situation, yet the constant presence of cell phones has diminished time spent thinking individually.

When I think about the implications of this in my own life, I have found that I do tend to be on my phone or computer when I have time to myself. Before bed I will scroll through Instagram or watch Netflix and will sit on my phone if I have a few minutes before class starts. By filling almost every free moment with technology, I have personally experienced the lack of the solitary thought that Moore is referencing.

Another influence of cell phones to our communication, according to Moore, is the presence of cell phones during conversations. The presence of the phone alone, regardless of whether or not the person is actually using it, decreases the satisfaction of the people involved in the conversation.

In a study done in 2015 by the Pew Research Center, 89 percent of of cellphone users admitted to being on their phones during their last social gathering, and 82 percent of adults said they believe how they used their phones in social situations hurt the conversation.

As of 2015, 86 percent of people between the ages of eighteen to twenty-nine and 83 percent of thirty to forty-nine-year-olds have smartphones.

The way that we use text messaging can also change as we age. In her high school years, Gebka used texting to hold lengthy conversations with many people and, as she got older, texting became a tool of necessity and actual texting conversations are rare and reserved for close friends.

This point relates back to the changing dynamic of my phone usage in college. Since most of the people I talk to everyday are within a mile radius of me, I find that my texts have become more about arranging plans with the people around me instead of having lengthy conversations which are more reserved for in-person interactions because of proximity. On the other hand, I still use my phone to Snapchat people daily who are close by more than I did before college which is not out of necessity.

Different generations also have different texting styles. In Gebka’s opinion, an indicator of a sender’s age comes from the number of emojis used. She notices this in the snapchats of the children she babysits for, who include around twelve different emojis after their usernames. On the other hand, she notices that her parents will only occasionally use emojis in a lighthearted context. Gebka also views emojis as a way to soften messages and will at times use them to make Blackboard announcements more friendly for her students.

Different generations can also have varying opinions as to what the unspoken rules of texting are. Gebka’s father believes that texting is supposed to be relaxed and that there is about a forty-eight-hour window of time to respond to a message whereas Gebka views it as something that is supposed to be quick, hence the name “instant message.”

Texting has allowed communication styles to cross borders and generations. In a 2010 study done by Gareis and Wilkins, it was found that the term “I love you” has increased in frequency around the globe and particularly in younger generations due to technology.

As pointed out by Moore, emojis have also been controversial and have spurred social debate. The first emojis were very simplistic and excluded a lot of people as they only had one skin tone while more diverse emojis had to be purchased. An example of this would be clip art, which originally only displayed white men in business clothes. Over time, emojis have become more and more inclusive of all different groups of people. Pull out your smartphone and you will find five different hair and skin tone combinations to choose from for any emoji with a human face.

Digital messaging is a convenient, quick way to reach people and has provided new ways to stay connected to people in our lives. However, it has made significant changes to the way that we communicate. Some of these changes have skewed us away from effectively using these new technologies as the tool that they were intended to be.

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