Magazine article The New Yorker

Poker Face

Magazine article The New Yorker

Poker Face

Article excerpt

We don't live in the information age. That would be an insult to information, which, on some level, is supposed to inform. We live in the communication age. Ten billion fingers fumbling away, unautocorrecting e-mails, texts, and tweets; each one an opportunity to offend, alienate, aggrieve, all in public, and at light speed. The misinterpretation age.

Take the language itself. Texting in English is like propelling a gilded horse-drawn carriage onto the interstate. Subtlety, nuance, and ambiguity were luxuries of a less frantic era. And irony, a supposed hallmark feature, has become an invisible, odorless menace. Someone--presumably someone with a healthy sense of the stuff--made it harder to detect by strangling the irony mark ([reversed question mark]) in its cradle. Irony now condemns us all to imagine that every e-mail or text might actually, secretly, be poking fun at us.

Not long ago, I noticed that a friend had found a work-around to the growing irony blight; he ended almost every sentence, in every e-mail, with an exclamation mark. Astonishing! I had, up to this point, imagined that everyone had a tiny velvet bag of exclamation marks, hidden somewhere behind the dresser, to be taken out and used only on special occasions: one apiece for the birth of your children; a choice few to chase off a carjacker. In the misinterpretation age, however, there's no time for hoarding resources. Applied liberally, the exclamation mark takes the stink of sarcasm off e-mail. A sentence without one is suspect. Slippery. Ambiguous. "Thanks." But a sentence suitably equipped becomes honest, enthusiastic, courageous. "Thanks!" I no longer felt secure sending an e-mail with fewer than five of the things; a row of smart little hammer-and-nails smashing flat any chance that the reader might misunderstand.

The exclamation mark led me, inevitably, to the emoticon. I offer no regrets. Enabling the emoji keyboard in my smartphone was like tumbling down a softly carpeted flight of stairs and into a sparkling, happy party in which every sentence was understood. No harm, no foul, no worries. I simply mixed and matched parenthesis and colon, semicolon, etc., to convey the exact emotional subtext. Entire sentences could be expressed in emoticons. Not just faces. Little pictures of handguns, dog shit, poison. No wonder the pharaohs ruled for three thousand years; their written language left no room for ambiguity.

My written communications were now unimpeachable. Digital. Clean. But in person there was still one big obstacle to effective communication; that great bungler of human expression. …

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