By Aditi Datta

‘And… smile!’

This two-word cue has framed our ready response when the world is watching. Lights, camera, action. And smile. We now have the pout and {in an ode to my best friend} we even have the smoulder, but they don’t have the same staying or swaying power as the good old smile. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly to do with your face while getting your passport picture taken, you’ll know how difficult it is to confront the camera {and quite possibly, the world} without a smile.

Because, you know, you’re never fully dressed without one. Without trying to apply the ubiquitous trend of dichotomy in world truths, there really are only two reasons to smile. One is out of genuine joy, and the other is with agenda. One is an expression that often can’t be controlled, and the other is punctuation. One is when a baby sees a duck, and the other is when a baby sees a clown.

Simple enough, but then the digital age came and made it all so murky. Enough has been said about how the written word lacks inflection. Enough messages are analysed in early dating days that prove typed text is wildly open to interpretation. Enough email drafts are typed, deleted, slept over and retyped before being sent, to tell us that tone is tricky business. But there is this slight issue that personally perturbs – whatever happens when you were turning that frown upside down?

I, for one, was very happy when the smiley became part of written language. If only there was a campaign to include it in the dictionary! Two eyes, maybe a nose/maybe not, but always the curved glee of a grin. We even had expressions for shock, horror, agony and ecstasy, like modern-day hieroglyphics, which I’ve been too quick to avoid. As a writer who’s been trained to think that ‘very hungry’ is a lazy shortcut to ‘famished’, I was quite certain I didn’t need conglomerations of semi-colons and alphabet in order to make my point.

Except that I was stuck when it came to my turn to smiley.

If you knew me, you might call me droll. Some say funny, some say sarcastic, and without taking an online quiz or an inward journey to find the right descriptor, let’s just say, there is general agreement about some kind of humour. Usually delivered in person. With some semblance of a smile.

As the written word started so closely resembling the spoken one, I joined countless others who sought solace in data and not in voice. And so I went about the early days of my career, inserting too many smiley faces in too many emails. Because I smileyed as I would in real life. Yes, I was genuinely pleased to ‘e-meet you.’ Yes, I did indeed think we could pull this off together. Even when I was reinforcing the importance of a particular deadline, there was always a joke that I couldn’t resist making. Even when I was going to bang down the door, a knock knock was never too far behind.

And I loved the camaraderie of us email writers, writing and smiling, smiling and writing, oftentimes exclaiming {because a certain kind of email writer did that, you know}. Until I started seeing the strategic sort of smiley, when an ominous stage was about to be set, or when colleagues slimed out of commitments by making you an ally. A smiley could be a warning. A straightjacketed refusal. It could be an act of sucking up and bearing it. {Sort of like when the poor clown sees a baby.}

A smiley could be anything but a smile.

This is when it got bewildering. Is it possible that everybody didn’t smiley like they meant it? Would I compromise my position as a professional grown-up by adopting teenage girl text? Worse, would I run the risk as a woman of not having the conviction to make my point without softening the blow first? Could I afford to come across as meek but nice, when I knew in fact I was being firm but polite?

I tried life without smileys, but then I sounded too stern. I tried to compensate with gushing words, but never sounded genuine. I even explored exclamation marks, but then came across as too excited about a courier having been tracked; more than any self-respecting adult could conceivably be. As I e-converse with editors who I’ve never met in person, will my expressiveness on email become the equivalent of the weak handshake?

To smiley or not to smiley – I’m still figuring it out.