How Emojis Ruin Conversation

Language is best when it’s layered

Paul Greenberg
3 min readNov 2, 2022


“Whisper” by keyofnight is licensed under CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit

Last year I got into a fight with a good friend because I refused to reply to his non-words. It didn’t matter if he’d send me a winky. Or a sad face. Or a heart-eyed smiley. I just wasn’t interested. He could double exclamation point my insights, double ha ha my jokes or thumbs up my proposed plans all day long. No reply. Eventually all this boiled up into actual words being exchanged over a telephone and carried on to drinks over oysters. By the end of it my friend stopped sending me emojis and we are closer friends in part because of it.

Think about the best in-person conversations you’ve ever had. Don’t you think of music?

In an ideal world none of us would be texting at all. In my anti-phone book I borrowed the maxim of another anti-phone book and advised that whenever possible we should text for logistical purposes only. Why? Because texting has a way of flattening out our friends and loved ones. Over text we’re not really there. Just our desire to cut to the chase. There is no flare of the nostrils, no equivocation in the voice. Just a faceless seeking that has more to do with our own interiority than with that of our interlocutor.

The emoji, or worse yet, the bitmoji simulacrum of ourselves is just one more step along the continuum of alienation. Why even bother to take the few extra key strokes to say what is really on our minds when there is a kind of template approximation of how we kinda, sorta feel at times like these?

To my mind these steps away from real interaction are as callous as they are deceptive. We do not truly feel the way our various moji’s suggest we feel. We are, all of us, a hot mess of envy, regret, desire, love, disgust, rage, resentment, contrition and a whole lot of other things that don’t even really have names. We originally chose to communicate with those we care about because we need help with all that and we know our loved ones need help with their own hot mess. Empathy in other words, conveyed in a series of real time actual responses to the many-layered things we’re actually feeling all the time.

Think about the best in-person conversations you’ve ever had. Do you not think of music? — a duet sometimes, a trio or sometimes a whole chamber orchestra of interlocking, overlapping, ebbing and flowing themes and leitmotifs that resolve or don’t resolve in ways that leave you longing for the next conversation. For me that music is what makes me turn away from a text conversation. Doubly so for a text conversation laced with non-words.

We humans took hundreds of thousands of years to develop a rich vocabulary that haltingly expresses the complexity of the 86 billion neurons firing in our brains at any given time. We don’t always say what we mean. But we try. For me, I’ll keep trying. For me it’s worth effort.

I’d rather fumblingly say what I think I want to say rather than default to a tech company that will say it even worse.



Paul Greenberg

New York Times bestselling author of Four Fish as well as The Climate Diet and Goodbye Phone, Hello World