It’s that time of year for various dictionaries and news outlets to declare their Word of the Year for 2020. In more normal times, choices like quarantine, doom-scrolling, or Zoom fatigue would be no-brainers. But these are not normal times. So, I would like to propose that the Word of the Year is not a word at all. It’s an emoji.
Specifically, it’s this emoji:
I have sent this lone emoji — which is most often known as Grimacing Face but also goes by Eek or Nervous — hundreds of times this year on every messaging platform I use, from Twitter to texting to Microsoft Teams work chat. It has not left the “most recently used emojis” list on my phone. My friend who turned me on to this emoji’s perfect vibe for 2020 trades them back and forth with me, always in the same format:
One of us shares a disturbing fact about the pandemic, racial injustice, or national politics.
The other sends the emoji.
End of conversation.
Because after a while, what else is there to say? “Oh man, that’s bad news;” or, “Gosh, I don’t believe it;” or, “We’re all totally screwed” all ring hollow after reading so many dire headlines. Where words have failed, Grimacing Face has felt right. It reflects shared pain. It is a symbol of solidarity. We should put it on a flag and fly it over every government building.
Curious about why it works so well, I reflected on times when I have made the expression on my own three-dimensional face. It appeared recently during an urgent care visit. I had cut my hand open on an aluminum can while cooking and needed five stitches. Before sewing me up, the doctor gave me three shots of local anesthesia. “I hope you wore your big boy underpants,” she said, a second before sticking the needle right into the wound. I did the grimace face and tried unsuccessfully not to yelp.
Did you just grimace reading that? Do you imagine the pain and share it even in a distant way, calling to mind a time you cut yourself? Plenty of people showed me the grimace when I told them this story the days after the injury, brandishing my stitched-up hand at the climactic moment as visual evidence of my clumsiness.
We grimace at the suffering of others all the time, like the night of an NBA basketball game I went to seven years ago, when a player jumped and awkwardly landed flat on his face without bracing himself. Thousands of people in the arena grimaced along with me; the accompanying “oh!” sound on the video of the fall is loud and clear. The facial expression in that context was a visceral, subconscious reaction to encountering the pain of another: I winced on behalf of the basketball player even though I wasn’t feeling the pain myself.
Being in this pandemic means nonstop solidarity grimacing. We are simultaneously feeling our own pain and the pain of so many others. Covid-19 has affected every person on the planet, in small and big ways. Its universal scope is unique in modern history.
When I send a Grimacing Face emoji to a friend in response to a bad pandemic news text, I am expressing hurt on three different levels: I’m saying I feel loss personally, I feel it for my friend, and I feel it for every other damn person who’s sick or was unable to see their loved ones for Christmas.
It would be better to share bad news with a compassionate hug than an emoji, undoubtedly, but hugging anyone who doesn’t live with you is off the table these days. The socially distanced emoji has been my go-to empathy replacement, the easiest quick expression of shared pain among a bunch of less-than-ideal options.
And this is what makes me think the emoji reflects hope for the post-pandemic world, despite the pain in a grimace. There is a chance we emerge from this time more connected with others than we were before, and more attuned to their suffering. The key will be to transform the solidarity reflected in a little emoji into something more concrete, including public policies that promote the common good and protect the most vulnerable.
That’s a big jump, moving from vague feelings of togetherness to meaningful change. But the frequency with which I send and receive Grimacing Faces tells me a widespread sentiment of solidarity is real. It’s a hopeful place to start.