Some Thoughts On The Winky Face ;-)

Smiley faces have been around for a while – I can remember getting brightly colored happy stickers in elementary school on the quizzes I aced – but the digital advent of emoticons as they’re known today all started back in ’82, with an email (hard to believe they had email back then) written by a scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University. I’m not sure how long it took people to start using them or who came up with the winky face ;-) we all know and love (or hate) today, or any of the dozens of other emoticons, or ‘smileys’ practically everyone from our generation uses in texts, in instant messaging, on Facebook, everywhere. Maybe our generation should be called Generation :-) instead of Generation Y or whatever they’re calling us. Now, conveniently, you don’t have to put your complicated thoughts and sentiments into words. You can just use a smiley.

Different smileys can encompass myriad emotions. They are, after all, called emote-icons for a reason. A simple :-) could mean… thank you; I’m in a good mood; I like you; I don’t know what to say but I want the conversation to keep going; I’m trying to ease the harshness of what I just said without actually apologizing or weakening my opinion; I’m unnecessarily reinforcing the positive attitude of what I just said; I’m unsuccessfully attempting to be mysterious by not saying anything and just smiling like the Mona Lisa… a smiley can mean pretty much anything you want.

Unless you’re sad. Then you should use :-( That can mean…I’m sorry; I’m upset; I don’t like you; you insulted me; pity me, please; my dog just died and you’re being really insensitive about it; I don’t possess the basic faculties necessary to communicate my feelings so I’ll just use these punctuation marks instead. If your sadness intensifies or :-( just doesn’t seem strong enough, you can always cry about it :’-(

Then there are your ever-so-slightly more complicated emoticons – the flirty or silly tongue sticking out :-P, the ‘my lips are sealed’ or ‘I don’t even know how to reply to that’ :-X, the surprised or shocked face :-O (for something less awe-inspiring, maybe just use :-o). Don’t even get me started on the near-incomprehensible ones – what the hell is this? <:oD A clown? John Wayne Gacy? Please don’t tell me if you’ve ever had occasion to use a serial killer emoticon. I won’t even get into the crazy Japanese ones, though I tend to like them more since I don’t have to crane my neck to figure out what they mean. But above all, my personal favorite has to be… the winky face ;-)

Depending on who types out those three punctuation marks (or two, if you don’t care for noses ;), or just one little click if emoticons are preloaded on your iPhone or what have you), a winky face can be very… emotional, for lack of a better word. If you’re texting your crush and they use the wink, is that a go-ahead for more forward flirting? Is it a green light for hooking up? Can I go update my Facebook status to ‘it’s complicated’ now?

Once your parents learn how to text on their Jitterbugs, it’s only a matter of time before they discover emoticons. They will probably never fully understand every implication an emoticon has. You might get a text from your crush that says ‘Can’t wait to see you later ;-)’ (or, if your crush is obnoxious, ‘cnt w8 2 c u l8er’), then two seconds later get a text from your mom that says THE SAME THING, but you have a completely different reaction to it, perhaps even repulsion; perhaps you even rapidly text your mother back, yelling ‘MOM!! Don’t use the winky face! Gross!!!’ as if you’re above emoticons, as if you didn’t, just moments earlier, send a wink right back to your crush. From personal experience, my belief is that a wink from your best friend is the only wink that carries no implications and has no hidden meaning. It’s simple. It’s cute. Unless your best friend also happens to be your crush or your mother, it’s just a ;-)

A ;-) from your crush can also potentially be devastating. Say he has no idea you like him. Or say he does know and he’s just a douchebag. You might be happily texting back and forth one evening and then suddenly, in reply to ‘what’s up?’ he deals the blow with – ‘just hangin with this girl ;-)’ What? What? Why did he decide to tell me that? you wonder. Is he trying to make me jealous? Does he want me to get mad? Should I just act totally chill about it? Should I tell him I like him? And then it turns out he was only talking about his sister or his mom (despite the strange, vaguely incestuous insinuation that would come with that), but you’ll never know because you read too much into three punctuation marks.

If one of Charles Dickens’ characters received a letter from the love of his life (let’s say Pip got a letter from Estella), he might spend days agonizing over the way Estella signed the letter, or something she said that could have two meanings. That is at least slightly more legitimate than worrying about what a wink means. And can we just talk for a minute about how awkward winks are IRL (Jitterbug-wielding parents reading this, that’s ‘in real life’ to you)? I don’t think anyone is really good at winking, except maybe my beautiful high school history teacher – another topic for another time – or like Johnny Depp or someone. More often than not, a wink described in a book or a play is preceded by the adjective ‘lecherous,’ i.e. ‘The man gave her a lecherous wink.’ Girls can probably pull off winking better than guys can, but if a chick is winking at me IRL, I have bigger problems than whether or not she did it well. Okay, sidebar over.

In winky conclusion, a huge shout-out to that professor at Carnegie-Mellon for getting the massive, ugly ball rolling. The world wouldn’t have been the same without you. ;-) TC mark

image – Kate Ter Haar


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  • Jessi Smith

    Whenever a writer makes correct grammatical use of “myriad” it makes me :-)

  • Jessi Smith

    Whenever a writer makes correct grammatical use of “myriad” it makes me :-)

  • Sophia

    Ohhh gosh, several times I’ve accidentally mistyped and used a semicolon instead of a colon in a smileyface to a guy that I don’t know well. I wonder and wonder why he isn’t texting back until I realize that, oh, I just basically sexually harassed him over text. akldsjfkls.

    • Tina Fine

      i’ve definitely used a semicolon by mistake… and right now I’m thinking about all the people….oh no!

  • Jessica

    I don’t know anyone who puts a hyphen in their smilies.

  • not an old man

    only old men use the – in their emoticons. it’s a proven fact

    • mya

      and suddenly I am an old man

  • Guest

    Actually girls do theirs backwards a lot, as in (: , because a lot of programs will automatically change the text into a big yellow picture of a happy face when you just want to keep it simple with some punctuation.

    • Anonymous

      I did not know that, that makes a lot of sense, thank you.

  • oneriver

    ew. smiley with noses are yucky .

  • Michael Koh

    reminded me of ‘get him to the greek’ where ‘sergio’ threatens to kill ‘aaron’:




  • Morgan Alldredge
  • Morgan Alldredge
  • Slade_kyles

    trying to blow our minds about the world of emoticons?…well, that -might- have been good article in 1999.
    but since i don’t have a time machine…it’s not.

  • GrammarLord

    I like the good ol’:   -____-

    • Guest

      what does that mean

  • Your Friend

    ” I don’t know what to say but I want the conversation to keep going” 

  • Alyssa McCutcheon

    hahah “i dont have to crane my neck to figure out what they mean” gotta love that second of looking at it sideways to figure out which smiley it is.
    and i also am not a fan of the nose, unnecessary i say

  • Alli

    I loved the line: “Jitterbug-wielding parents reading this, that’s ‘in real life’ to you.” It made me imagine a bunch of people in their 60s brandishing their Jitterbugs like swords.

    I once sent a text to my parents with <3 and they were really confused!

    Personally I like the :D myself. I think that's more how I smile in real life.

  • Anonymous

    LOl… “john wayne gacy”

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