Move over emoticons

Using GIFs in textual communication helps us convey messages effectively

Till recently, I used to be someone who preferred to communicate face-to-face or through video calls, and if neither was available, settle quite unhappily for audio calls. I think I was like that even when I was much younger. Then, I realised it was probably a generational thing. Most of my peers are like me, preferring to communicate through old-fashioned methods, especially when it came to discussing important matters.

But today’s youngsters seem to prefer exactly the opposite. The easiest and the most popular method seems to be texting. As impersonal and interrupted as it may seem, that works best with them. I should know. I have a team of millennials working with me. Every day, there is a barrage of texts going back and forth on our social media group created to stay in touch to discuss work matters. But what is quickly taking over words is an army of GIFs — Graphics Interchange Formats — that communicate a host of emotions. Happiness, lethargy, enthusiasm, shock, surprise, sadness, love, laughter — every emotion and expression finds its way into the conversation. This got me thinking about what is happening to communication these days and how it could evolve in the future of work.

Personal touch

The reason I prefer face-to-face communication is because it is a lot more personal, empathetic and allows us to use non-verbal signals such as body language, facial expressions, gestures, and so on… which add those much-needed nuances. But here is a tool — GIFs — that allows us to use the same elements even in textual communication. Do you want to disagree? Ask a question? Express disbelief? Be ironic? Go for that GIF.

Yes, it is not your face, not your body language and it may be slightly exaggerated, but it is surely better than just an emoticon or a limiting word. Of course, GIFs today are used in informal conversations, among people or colleagues who share a certain camaraderie, and mostly to create a convivial and humorous atmosphere. But could they be soon used in formal conversations too? If a group chat is going on in the context of a business meeting, could I use a GIF to express disagreement or disapproval? Could I use a GIF as an icebreaker right at the beginning and make everyone comfortable, or to congratulate or appreciate someone? Perhaps, yes. We don’t know. But GIFs help us make impersonal texting more personal and empathetic for sure, as they rely on facial expressions, body language and emotions.

These days, I find that my own communication styles are changing. I enjoy using GIFs and I text a lot more often. Perhaps, this is how I am adapting to my team’s communication style. And if it helps to convey the message, why not? Of course, we cannot replace in-person communication entirely with GIFs, especially in certain sensitive situations. But in many cases, if they help us get our message across in the most effective and empathetic way possible, shouldn’t we adapt?

The writer is a literary journalist. She also heads Corporate Communications at UST Global. @anupamaraju

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