One of the more interesting points of debate to arise from the annual compendium of fawn-ication that is W magazine's "Best Performances Hollywood" issue is put forward by Annette Bening (who is featured, incidentally, for her brilliant performance in the film 20th Century Women). The 58-year-old actress used her interview to enthuse, not about directors or the finer points of method acting. But about the emoji.
"I love emojis," she says. " I like the thumbs-up. I'm also big on the heart. I really like the woman in the red dress...the blue spiral and the namaste...I almost prefer not to use words, just emojis."
As someone who believes that few exchanges in life require more than a bold tick, red heart or "scream" emoji to reach an adequate point of understanding, I tend to agree. Jo Shmoe may happily allow their inbox to accumulate 12000 unopened emails while they stumble over those carefully drafted replies; I, on the other hand, can blast away hundreds of missives with only the most cursory of responses and a well-placed icon: "Excuse my brevity, but here's a winking-face emoji to convey the deeper emotional engagement this correspondence deserves and would obviously merit if I had more than three seconds in which to finish it before the next 25 emails appear in my inbox." The same with texts. Who has time to chit-chat any more? A tired face, smiling poop and glass of wine are all I really need to express my deeper thinking, although the recent introduction of a green-faced sick emoji and the shrugging "meh" woman have done much to fill any absences of nuance in my text vocabulary.
What has this to do with style, you ask? Which is fair enough.
The point is this. Emojis may be the perfect slacker's shortcut, but they're not necessarily the most chic of accessories. While useful, they're not always seen as elegant. And even with the arrival of a new black-coloured heart, they're only dubiously chic. Bening's benediction, therefore, has been a landmark moment for those seeking emoji reassurance: if an award-winning actress of a certain age and sublime sophistication says she prefers them, "almost", to words, surely it's now OK to roll them out across all our correspondences? Or is it?
"Absolutely not. No adult should use emojis — it's embarrassing." So pronounces my 11-year-old daughter, a person who considers any emoji-less inter-peer communication as an unequivocal social diss and who frequently engages in hour-long group text exchanges that consist only of crimson hearts. She later concedes that some non-social media usage might be acceptable, and compiles a list of approved emojis that includes the flags, people and animals "apart from the dog and monkey", and all travel-related symbols "except for the money ones". Under no circumstances, however, should I ever use any of the faces, hand gestures, hearts or the aubergine. "You must never," she intones in the manner of James James Morrison Morrison Weatherby George DuPree, "ever, use the aubergine."
Seeing that 11-year-old girls are about as tolerant of adult freedoms of expression as Kim Jong Un, I decide to seek the thumbs-up elsewhere. "I'm afraid your daughter is right," says Martin Wolf, the FT's chief economics commentator and 21st-century sage who gives emoji use the frowny face. "Human beings developed language and then writing in order to express their thoughts and feelings accurately and powerfully. I understand that art and music also have this capacity. But emojis? They are for children."
Wolf has yet to be seduced by the dancing woman in the red dress or, sadly, the dollar bills flying up to heaven (which I would find almost irresistible were I he, which is perhaps a marvellously concise illustration of just why I am not). Neither does he capitulate on their use for personal correspondence. "I believe I have never received emojis," he continues. "But I might be wrong. I can only guess what my wife would think if I started sending them to her."
The FT leader writer (and occasional style contributor) Robert Armstrong is similarly uncompromising, although he does confess to the occasional exchange of the smiling poop emoji with his daughter. "If you are not very familiar with your interlocutor, always avoid reaching for faux-familiarity/humour/casualness in emoji — as in all things, it risks making you look like a huge tool."
Which is all very drear and grown-up of everybody (lone-tear-running-down-face emoji) as the emails are ratcheting up again, and my brother has sent me a text that is just crying out for an underscored 100. Are they really so uncool?
I approach Alexandra Shulman for a final arbitration. As the 58-year-old editor of British Vogue, she is the gatekeeper of all that is chic, and very good on guidelines. But as a woman who works in fashion, I am hoping she might be more tolerant of their whimsical, frivolous appeal.
"I don't mind the use of emojis, though I can't bring myself to send them — they seem a little too playground," says Shulman. Which does offer us addicts a very small crumb of tolerance (cue bulging bicep, victory sign and party popper icons). She does, however, reserve one area in which all emojis should be verboten. "I totally draw the line at emojis being used to accompany Instagram feeds when someone has died," she concludes. "I don't feel a broken heart is an appropriate way to demonstrate grief."
I think we can all thumbs-up that.
This article was originally published by The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017