Consider the emoticon. It is fun. It is cordial. It is, or was at first, creative—a few keystrokes, designed to form our words, used instead to broadcast our facial expression. :) means happy. :( means sad. The emoticon should be at most a conversational enhancement, at least an innocuous accoutrement. But it is neither. These silly scribbles are actually a growth tool for our natural tendency toward passive aggression. Like a hashtag, a sotto voce aside, the emoticon has taken digital communication’s promise of clarity in interaction and filled it with maybes and not-sures. It is small. It is cute. And is it too dramatic to say it’s destroying our relationships? If so, allow me to mitigate: :-\

First, some history: The emoticon is older than you may think. A computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon proposed digital markers to distinguish jokes written on the department’s online bulletin board from things that weren’t jokes. That’s the first known use. The Japanese pioneered straight-up emoticons, ones that stare directly at you, for their character–encoding scheme ASCII NET. These emoticons are elaborate. My favorite depicts a sleepy person: ~_~ zZz

Emoticons remained mostly private nerd jokes in computer communities until the digital -revolution gave the rest of us the tools to create them. The moment there was e-mail, the moment there was texting, we needed to figure out a way to speak without letting our words represent us. Before our communications were reduced solely to words, we had tone and expression to convey what we meant. Once everything was in writing, we had to find a way to show that, though the proof was permanent, we might not have meant it exactly as it came out.

With the emoticon, we lost an opportunity to let our words matter. We could have become direct, allowing words to represent our intentions loud and clear. Instead, we were afraid of using words that could be read and reread, afraid our meanings and true intentions could create an actual effect. So we decided to stop letting our words define us, even when it would have been noble to do so.

What better way to unleash the passive aggression we would like to commit all day against those we love—but also hate—than with this tool that can undo a sentence with a few keystrokes. You’re an idiot. ;-) That dress isn’t working for you. :-) You’ve ruined my life. :-0

Our words need to mean what we mean. Every aspect of communication these days is unspontaneous, premeditated and exacted. The emoticon evolved because our communication has taken on such passiveness that we had to add life to it. But with this life, we need to be warned: It’s not just the end of directness, it’s the end of conversation. We fire sentences and phrases at one another. We carefully choose when to respond. We have a chance to edit. We control interactions by deciding when we will get back to people, if we will get back to them. There are no awkward silences anymore, because awkwardness is a thing that needs tension between two people. If you’re not looking at each other, you can easily change screens for a distraction. There’s no silence when the phone is buzzing with someone else’s message.

The machines have won, and our fear of confrontation has won too. We are now in the full-time business of testing how far we can go. I don’t mean to sound humorless. Is there an emoticon for knowing you sound uptight, for acknowledging that you’re making a big deal out of nothing? There are words for that. It’s this new second language and its rules that I don’t quite understand. Direct communication used to be rewarded. In this new world, I don’t really understand what people are saying anymore.

Maybe the emoticon evolved because we were communicating too much. Maybe such tools protect us from the perils of constant talking. (Remember, if we knew everything about one another, we’d hate one another. That’s why we never read our friends’ blogs and why so many of those same friends are hidden on our Facebook pages—to preserve our friendships.) Maybe being genuine is contrary to getting along with people. We have evolved to look one another in the eye, to seek approval. Before all this, we could take back things we’d said, remarket our meaning, dismiss our initial intentions or anger. The emoticon is perhaps adaptive, because we know we couldn’t survive if we said what we meant all the time.

Recently, before I purchased a new iPhone, I had an inexpensive Virgin Mobile phone that was marketed to teenagers. The Virgin Mobile phone had a ready-made happy-face button, which saved two keystrokes. It was in the same place on the keyboard where my thumb remembered the period being on my previous phone. The “I can’t believe you’re late again” text I sent my husband, along with the smiley face I had intended as a period and sent before I could edit, had a strange effect. “Sorry,” he wrote back, which he never does. I had gotten my point across. I had seethed, I had reminded, I had nagged, and I had said I was sorry all at once. It’s gratifying, like honking the horn a second too long when someone cuts you off. Ultimately the effects of unleashing that kind of aggression are destructive; in the moment, however, they are delicious. When we’re trying to communicate, what do we care about long-term effects? Now is all we have. There’s no going back.