Culture Vulture

A 'like' isn't always a 'like'

Words on social media are open to myriad interpretations and the question of sincerity is particularly fraught

The world of social messaging can be a linguistic minefield - you never know what might set someone off.

Unlike standard English, there is no guidebook for the uninitiated. All we have are provincial, shape-shifting conventions that have not hardened into universal rules.

We all have our pet peeves.

I, for one, can't stand it when people preface their chat responses with "erm". It sounds head-scratchingly dithery, more annoying than "er" and "um" because it tries to be both at once.

Then, there is the cold, judgmental finality of "I see". "Oic", which sounds plain rude, is even worse.

Some of my friends feel unnerved by people who chat in complete sentences. Others turn up their nose at those who use too many abbreviations.

Of course, these value judgments are highly subjective and often quite baseless. And some are more prevalent than others.

But between the contrivances of social media, its performative aspect - pretending to care, pretending not to care - and the speed at which words evolve, it has become nigh impossible to say what we mean and mean what we say.

Two years ago, a Binghamton University research team found that text messages ending in full stops were perceived as less sincere.

Psychology professor Celia Klin, who led the study, suggested that because texting lacks many of the social cues in face-to-face conversations, it makes sense that texters rely on what they have on hand - such as emoticons and punctuation.

For better or worse, people obsess over the sparse details of a text message, poring over it the way a literature student dissects an "unseen" text with a keen ear for nuance, gesture and tone.

Context matters.

Some sentences ending with full stops ("I'm fine.") may sound passive-aggressive. Yet, elsewhere, full stops may feel like gentle, necessary pauses, like deep breaths between sips of hot tea.

Many words can be perfectly understood only by one's circle of friends who get all the references.

There are also regional variations. In Thailand, where "ha" is the word for "five", "555" is typically used to signal laughter.

A word like "LOL" can also serve multiple functions. In its 28-year history, it has been used in all sorts of situations - from literally "laughing out loud" to "I'm pretending to be amused so I don't offend you".

And there are some people, such as former British prime minister David Cameron, who have mistaken it for "lots of love".

To me, the lower case "lol" evokes the cool, lollipop-sucking restlessness of a teenage girl.

I use it to indicate mild amusement, the way you giggle or nod along when a friend makes a bad joke. But like "haha", there are times when it becomes a way of plugging awkward lulls in the conversation.

An attempt at friendliness can devolve into a kind of awkward dance as two people mirror each other's language, spending more time than they should on nervous "lol"s and "haha"s.

Anxious to not come across as too earnest, they might start their sentences in lower case (sans autocorrect) and leave them hanging without full stops.

Crafting a message with the right degree of casualness and charm is an art unto itself.

In Renaissance Europe, artists and writers aspired towards a studied carelessness known as "sprezzatura".

The word comes from an etiquette guide by Italian diplomat Baldassare Castiglione called The Book Of The Courtier (1528).

Sprezzatura, writes Castiglione, is "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".

Particularly on Facebook, the question of sincerity becomes particularly fraught.

There is something schizophrenic about the way people use Facebook. They may click on buttons because of what they "do", rather than what they "say".

A "like" isn't always a "like". Its uses can range from scoring cheap brownie points with a person to stalking him. Someone once confessed that she "liked" my posts only so the algorithm could ensure they continued to show up on her newsfeed.

Facebook seems to be aiming at closer approximations of real life.

Rather than wonder if it would be appropriate to "like" a post by someone whose dog just died, you can now react with a "sad" emoticon.

Not too long ago, if you didn't know whether you could make it to an event on Facebook, you might still click on the "attending" button to add it to your e-calendar.

In doing so, you would have to suppress the feeling you had committed a minor infelicity - you didn't quite mean what you "said".

Now, we can just proclaim that we are "interested" and be more honest about our reluctance to commit to anything at all.

But between the contrivances of social media, its performative aspect - pretending to care, pretending not to care - and the speed at which words evolve, it has become nigh impossible to say what we mean and mean what we say. At its core, social media demands from its most active users a suspension of sincerity.

But has it ever been possible to say just what we mean in words?

Perhaps not.

In his poem The Forgotten Dialect Of The Heart (1994), the late American poet Jack Gilbert grasps at primitive images, attempting to express that which is ultimately ineffable.

Love is "a hundred/pitchers of honey" and "Giraffes are this/ desire in the dark". What we feel most has "no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds".

Likewise, in what seems like a crude parody of these hieroglyphics of love, the tongue-tied WhatsApp user may continue to find some release in aubergines, monkeys, moon faces and pears.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 22, 2017, with the headline 'A 'like' isn't always a 'like''. Print Edition | Subscribe