Simply No Words: What Happens When a Couple Decides to Text Only in Emoji?

By Zak Stone

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In February, WNYC reporter Alex Goldmark began an experiment with his girlfriend that many guys probably dream of: they banished words from their relationship. At least, over text.

Instead, Goldmark and his girlfriend Liza Stark decided to see what would happen if they texted each other exclusively with emoji and images. What was meant to be a one-month trial ended up going on for more than two months. Along the way, they found that getting rid of text made them communicate differently—less mundane exchanges, more emotional ones.

Goldmark reported on the experience for the podcast New Tech City, and I caught up about it with him over G-chat on Wednesday.

PLAYBOY: So what were the rules to your experiment with your girlfriend? Can you break it down a little bit?

GOLDMARK: All of our texting had to be in images, so that means emoji and photos, and no words allowed. And we had to honor the spirit of images. So, we couldn't write something on a piece of paper then snap a picture of that.

PLAYBOY: What kind of texting relationship did you two have before the experiment? Were you already using emoji all the time?

GOLDMARK: That's the thing. We didn't use emojis before. I was a total skeptic. I wasn't morally opposed or anything: I just hadn't bothered and neither had she. I guess we don't have enough tween cousins or anything.

I had one friend who used this app WeChat because she works a lot in China where it's huge and she showed me how much fun she thought the stickers were. Dancing frogs and cutsey little pandas and things. And so that gave me the idea that there was this whole world out there of people ditching words for crazy images.

PLAYBOY: What was it like going from no emoji to all emoji?

GOLDMARK: It was so hard at the start. I was terrible at this. She would find emojis that I didn't know were there and they were just so clear what she meant. Meanwhile I'm sending shapes and arrows. We had a breakthrough a week or so in when I realized I need to say "I" and "you.” So I just picked the guy in a baseball hat to mean me, but on her phone it looked like a helmet. So I basically picked the guy who's afraid to hit his head a lot as my emoji persona. Smooth right?

Anyway, after that, it was way easier to say things like, "I, Alex face, am walking to the subway to come home.” Because there is an Alex emoji now, and a walking and a subway and a home one. Easy.

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Liza's response to Alex's accidental use of words.

PLAYBOY: How did you transform some of these seemingly useless images into meaningful words to deal with the logistics of a relationship?

GOLDMARK: That's the real fun of it. You can say a whole lot more than you think once you start to know your vocabulary. We got more advanced. We each had emojis for ourselves. And then I picked the shirt and tie to signify work, for if I had to say, "I'm working late.”

Truth is, most of the things a couple texts are like, "When are you coming home for dinner" or "Pick up milk.” It's mundane crap. And then, "I love you" and the regular reminders of why you are in it together in the first place. Those get stale. When my texting app can auto complete those sentences, I'm typing them out too automatically, right? So having to do it with images, I did it differently every time. For one, there are like 20 hearts in there. The people who made emoji were building it for teens to flirt, I think. So I could deploy a lot more fresh affectionate messaging this way.

PLAYBOY: What about fighting? Was it possible to have a fight with just emoji?

GOLDMARK: That would be possible, too. If you had a lot of patience! It takes a long time to send a real good emoji message. At least for me. All emoji anyway. So that gives you time to think. And it's harder to stick your foot in your mouth if you have to do it really, really, really slowly.

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A typical conversation."My plane has been delayed. I got there early, and now I have to wait hours because of rain delays." Then: "Flight is cancelled. I’m taking the train."

PLAYBOY: So in a way, you maybe only expressed things that needed to be expressed, as opposed to whatever came to mind?

GOLDMARK: Yeah. Instead of literally what was in my head, I might pick out what I could say easily. And with the emoji and chat sticker lexicon, that tends to be a catalog of emotions (like all those smiley faces). So, I guess I was forced to check in more often about feelings and less often about addresses and locations of where she was or where I was. Pros and cons there, eh?

PLAYBOY: Ha, yeah. Now that the experiment is over, are you using emoji still?

GOLDMARK: Of course! It's definitely a good tool to deploy when texting your girlfriend. Several boyfriends have been in touch and said they started the experiment too after hearing it. ha!

PLAYBOY: Because they thought it'd be good for their relationships?

GOLDMARK: I guess. Or get them out of talking more.

Liza, are you going for a bike ride with friends? No, going running, then showering.
I’ll go buy groceries. Great, please pick up bread. I got bread.

Liza, are you going for a bike ride with friends? No, going running, then showering. I’ll go buy groceries. Great, please pick up bread. I got bread.

PLAYBOY: What new emoji do we need to better express ourselves to our romantic partners?

GOLDMARK: Oh, good question. Cheesy answer: something for miss. As in "I miss you." The Brazilians have a word, saudade, that is like missing, but stronger and better. I'd like an emoji for that.

PLAYBOY: So is your texting relationship pretty different now than before the experiment?

GOLDMARK: More emoji for sure. And I'll say, I am harder on myself about those rote ones we send so automatically. I get a little sad when I look at my text history with Liza and it's all about when we're getting home for dinner or logistics stuff. When we used all emoji, that was in there, but it wasn't the majority. So I try to keep mixing it up. In words and in images.


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