In a 2018 “Wired Guide to Emoji,” writer Arielle Pardes wrote that emojis, designed to “add emotional nuance to otherwise flat text,” are more than a millennial fad, but the lingua franca of the digital age.

For the sake of raising our emotional intelligence, let’s hope emojis do not supplant good ole, emotional communication.

Understanding how to read emotions can improve your writing and storytelling

In the book ‘How Emotions are Made,’ neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett argues that we should strive to be more nuanced in the ways we talk about our emotions. And if my reading of her theories is right, she would argue that our reliance on emojis stems from a classical (outdated) view of emotions, where facial expressions like a smiley face emoji and frowning face emoji can misleadingly be limited to express “happy” or “sad.”

Barrett offers evidence that the human brain simulates emotions in an interplay of brain, body and culture. And that each emotion can be expressed in countless instances that correspond to different situations and contexts.

Take that same smiley face, it can mean more than simply “happy,” and “happy” can be expressed in tears, laughter, a scream, complete silence and a multitude of responses depending on the situation, the person emoting, and those around them.

For writers, emotions are our collateral; the more we are better attuned to feelings, the greater our ability to influence audiences. In this seven-part blog series, I take highlights from Barrett’s findings and explore the implications of these processes for marketing, advertising and writing.

Communication shortcuts in the digital age

There’s no doubt that people texting on smaller screens and multi-tasking have adapted new languages in digital shorthand to be quick and quippy.

The Emogi Research Team claims emails and texts with the right emojis have high open rates. Could it be that millennials don’t draw a hard line between what are fun, friendly emojis and business professional?

Yet, this effort to say a lot with less via emotive characters or tone indicators, pose interesting dilemmas for us as we negotiate how to read each other in the digital age.

In a New York Times article, “Tone is Hard to Grasp Online. Can Tone Indicators Help?” some millennials have taken to paralinguistic signifiers to help readers fill in the blanks. When the digital shortcuts cut too much out of our communication and confuse, we all fall short of a shared understanding.

Since language and communication rely on layers and layers of what Barrett calls “social reality,” some neurodivergent thinkers, those on the autism spectrum, say extra notes help them with subtle cues associated with sarcasm or flirtation.

Attached to an image, you might also see tone indicators like these:

  • “/j = joking”
  • “/lh = lighthearted”
  • “/srs= serious”
  • “/rh= rhetorically”
  • “/g = genuine”
  • /hyp = hyperbole

It’s stunning how inventive humans are in their attempts to communicate and create a shared social reality, especially when coping in a time-tight, text-heavy digital world.

Thanks to our brain’s plasticity, we grasp concepts and simulate new predications each and every time a concept captures our attention. And we use language to invent vibrant and varied, possibilities of social reality.

Emotional granularity: The 50+ shades of emotion

A painter can look at several shades of blue and distinguish between cobalt, ultramarine, navy blue and cyan. While the rest of us might just say “blue.”

When studying emotions, Barrett tried to see if people could distinguish between the multitudes of “happy” or “sad,” and other emotions. Her findings showed that:

  • Some people have high emotional granularity. Their words corresponded with thousands of emotion concepts and each concept can be used to serve at least one goal, or often many different goals.
  • Some people used only a dozen or so emotion concepts. For them, “frustration,” “aggravation,” and “irritation” were categorized under “anger.”
  • Some showed low emotional granularity, where feelings were expressed in two ways: “feeling awesome” and “feeling crappy.” (Emoji-reliant?)

Our emotional granularity not only affects the way we can describe what is going on internally, how we name or label the sensations we might describe as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral within our body, but it also affects how we read other people’s emotions. High emotional granularity allows us to make mental inferences and perceive “fear” or “anger” in others with more nuance because we have a wider range of concepts to work with.

“Some people construct finer-grained emotional experiences than others do,” Barrett wrote. “People who make highly granular experiences are emotion experts: they issue predictions and construct instances of emotion that are finely tailored to fit each specific situation.”

How writers can learn to read emotions better and express them through storytelling

As writers, we want to exercise the brain functions that expand our emotional granularity.

Some tips Barrett gives are:

  • Gain new concepts by taking trips, reading books, watching movies, trying unfamiliar foods.
  • Try new perspectives the way you try new clothing, which will provoke your mind to combine concepts to form new ones. It might change the ways you predict and behave later.
  • Jot down new words you hear from thought-provoking podcasts or read in books outside your comfort zone. Having more words helps your brain calibrate to specific needs.
  • Don’t be satisfied with “happy.” Seek out and use more specific words like “ecstatic,” “blissful,” “inspired.”
  • Pick words from different languages, such as the Dutch emotion of togetherness, gezellig. Each word is an invitation to construct your experiences in new ways.
  • Try to invent your own emotion concepts, forging a way to have lots of concepts, and knowing which ones to use when.