Me and my emojis

Sometimes, pictures say it better than words, which is why I find emojis more endearing than annoying

If the emojis I use reflect my state of mind, I guess I am in a happy place.

The illustration on the right shows the emojis in my iPhone's "Recently Used" list.

Of the 21 icons listed, 14 are uplifting ones - hearts in various shapes, sizes and colours, a smiley face, a sunflower, a dog, a kiss, a balloon and a party hat.

There are only four unhappy icons - a tired face, grimacing face, shocked face and pouting face.

Three are neutral - an old woman, a drop of water and an airplane.

I never thought this day would come, but I'm now a frequent user of emojis.

I'm surprised at this development because I've always been quite proper when it comes to e-mailing and texting.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

I always start my message with a greeting, I seldom use abbreviations (and I have a particular allergy to "lol"), I insert full-stops and apostrophes and I keep to grammatical sentence structures.

Emoticons and emojis? These are the stuff of picture books for toddlers. How childish and annoying when grown-ups use them.

Somewhere along the line, though, something happened.

First came smiley emoticons that appeared at the end of my sentences :)

Then, when I got a smartphone and discovered emojis, little pictures started littering my text messages and social media posts.

(For the uninitiated, emoticons are letters and symbols that depict facial expressions. They range from the simple smiley face :) to quirky creations like (-_-) for someone with a secret smile.

Emojis, on the other hand, are tiny electronic pictures you use alongside text. These images were created in the late 1990s in Japan by mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo. Others soon caught on.

iOS and Android devices now have menus of them. They range from faces to animals to anything under the sun.

I started using emojis when I went onto Instagram. I follow photos of dogs and, I discovered, dog lovers sure use a lot of emojis.

I joined the party. I couldn't help it because can you think of a better way to respond to a photograph of an adorable chihuahua than to post a string of hearts?

In fact, the hearts in my Recently Used list are not so much used in the messages I send to my husband H as to the dogs I follow on Instagram.

H and I exchange emojis too, but they aren't always lovey-dovey ones. The unhappy icon faces in my list were all sent to him. The old woman icon came about when I was lamenting to him about a pain in my hip.

Emojis work best when words do not quite convey what you have to say.

In the middle of a busy work day, I might send H a single red heart emoji. Message: I'm thinking of you. It says everything without me having to type it out in so many words. (And the great thing about the red heart emoji is that when you send it on its own, it appears as one large, pulsating heart on the screen - really cute and eye-catching.)

Or I'll send him an airplane emoji in the middle of a dreary day and he will get that I wish we were on holiday.

Or we might have had a tiff in the morning and, ping!, I get a string of red rose emojis on my phone. All is forgiven. Emojis provide both intimacy and distance.

If I fall in love with a dog on Instagram, I would come across too strong if I were to post a comment saying "I love you Barkley". But replacing "love" with a heart emoji does the job nicely.

Emojis have become so prevalent that studies have been done on them.

There is a fascinating site called emojitracker which tracks in realtime all the emoji symbols that are being used in the world of Twitter.

The emoji for face with tears of joy tops the list. When I checked last Friday, it had been used 866,255,174 times in tweets.

Earlier this year, mobile communications company Swiftkey analysed more than a billion pieces of data from 16 languages to understand the world's fascination with emojis.

Its Emoji Report found that people everywhere use far more happy faces than sad ones. It also uncovered how people from different countries lean towards different emojis.

Some stereotypes held up, like how the French use four times as many heart emojis than speakers of other languages.

Surprisingly, Russian speakers were found to use three times as many romantic emoji than the worldwide average. Unsurprisingly, they also like winter-themed emoji like snowflakes.

Americans take the lead in random emoji categories including skulls, birthday cake, fire and, interestingly, the egg plant. Canadians are the world's No. 1 user of the smiling poop icon.

Much as I like emojis, though,

I do it only on Instagram and in messages to my dearest and nearest.

I think it will be career-suicide to start using emojis in work-related messages. The furthest I've gone is a smiley emoticon at the end of a work message :)

Electronic communication is a minefield. Life was much simpler when we used snail mail and all we needed to care about was starting our letters with "Dear so-and-so" and ending with "Yours sincerely".

I have been writing work e-mail for decades and I still haven't quite come to grips with basic things such as greetings and sign-offs.

If you get an e-mail from your boss or a business contact, how exactly should you frame the greeting of your e-mail back?

"Hi" and "Hello so-and-so" might be too casual, "Hey" sounds rude, and "Dear" is too warm. Would just stating his name be impolite?

I have decided that a good rule of thumb is to respond in kind. If the e-mail says "Dear Sumiko", I will do a "Dear so-and-so back", and if it is "Hi Sumiko", I reciprocate.

It gets trickier, though, if it were a boss who does not address me by my name and goes straight to the message. In such cases, I think a "Hi so-and-so" is appropriate.

The e-mail sign-off is even more problematic because there are so many possible permutations. I have not figured out the best combo that makes me come across friendly yet professional.

A check of my inbox has everything from "Best" to "Regards", "Kind Regards", "Best Regards", "Warmest Regards", "With Warm Regards", "Cheers", "Yours Sincerely", "All The Best" and "Yours Truly".

There are also those that come with a quote, which irritates me no end. These pearls of wisdom might be something the sender is inspired to live by, but I just feel I am being lectured to when I receive them.

My go-to sign-off for colleagues is "Thanks", which I feel is short, friendly and polite.

But if it is, say, a reader who takes the trouble to write me an e-mail, I will use "All The Best", which I feel expresses my appreciation better.

And if it is a nice e-mail, I will add a smiley to convey my even deeper appreciation :)

I have yet to insert an emoji, though, for fear I will be seen as frivolous, but who knows, it won't be too long before I do.

Follow Sumiko Tan on Twitter on @STsumikotan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Going over emojis'. Print Edition | Subscribe