When there is no icon to speak of… watch your words.

My friend Julie who hails from Australia and writes at jmdoyer: wings and things, wrote a blog yesterday about the LIKE button and other iconic images.

What is the appropriate response, she asks, when someone writes of something that is heartbreaking?

Sometimes, words fail me. Sometimes, all I want to do is give someone a hug to let them know, I hear you, I see you, I am with you in spirit.

And the LIKE just doesn’t cut it.

Her suggestion is that perhaps there needs to be an alternative button, the ‘♥’ button for those instances where words fail you.

Challenge is, if you’re like me, the only icon you know how to create is the 🙂 – and when someone is sharing their ♥, or breathing through sadness, 🙂 doesn’t cut it either. (I just discovered the ♥ in my symbols folder. 🙂 )

I wonder what would happen if for a day, I could not speak any words and was only allowed to use smiley faced and other icons to communicate? Perhaps my day would be like one of those childhood books where between words, images appear to encourage the child to identify what word is appropriate. Would people still identify with me if in telling a story, I showed my emotions through pictures? Would they get my gist if I used icons to depict what was happening in my world?

Some studies show that 7% of communication is verbal. The rest is all implied through body language, inflection, tone, gestures, use of language  —  culture plays a role too, as does gender. In some cultures, a side to side shake of the head implies agreement. In others, it means the opposite. Some people use their hands wildly. Others are restrained. 

I am a hand talker. When I was little, I loved how my French-derivative mother’s hands moved so elegantly and eloquently when she spoke. I wanted to emulate her and remember consciously teaching myself to move my hands like hers. It became so ingrained that a teacher once asked me to describe a spiral staircase without using my hands. Hands placed firmly on the desk, I began to describe the staircase and my right foot started to move in concert with my words — and I didn’t even notice it until someone pointed it out.

My hands are my friends. They talk for me, they express my emotions, feelings and thoughts through writing, painting, creating. They speak for me. They reach out, they touch, they feel, they see. They connect me to my world through all my senses.

One of the exercises I like to use when teaching creative writing is to fill a bag with small objects and invite students to close their eyes and take one object out of the bag. With closed eyes, I ask them to describe the object. Feel it. Hear it. Smell it. See it through your hands and all your senses, I tell them.

I then invite them to open their eyes, look at the object and write about it — but not the object — write about the experience of choosing the object. Write about the story the object speaks to you. Sense it before you write it.

It is always interesting to me how people respond. Watching body language when informed of the exercise is a lesson in fear, confusion, discomfort, awkwardness.

Afterwards, it’s a journey through our senses. From giddy disbelief, the room inevitably turns to calm silence, to a deep sense of connection once students have a chance to breathe into the experience. Posture shifts. Relaxes. Eases. Movement stills. Voices quieten. Eyes soften. In those sacred moments it is possible to feel what people are experiencing without words interfering with their expression.

Perhaps as Julie suggests, we need something more than a LIKE button to express how we feel about something someone is expressing that is sad or anxious, or bewildered, or despairing.

Then again, maybe it’s not an Icon we need. Maybe what we need is to take the time to write the words that truly express how we feel. Maybe, like the bag of unidentified objects, we need to stop, breathe, listen and express our hearts.

When body language is stripped away because we’re in cyberspace, or on the phone, or on the page, maybe we need to put all our attention into the words we use to express our feelings. Maybe we need to use our words wisely rather than looking for a little button to push that says, I see you. I feel your pain. I am with you.

Ha! then again, maybe all we need is an icon like thiscrying eye  to say all that needs to be said.

9 thoughts on “When there is no icon to speak of… watch your words.

  1. LG

    Sounds like a case for neuro linguistic programming (NLP), or more specifically Semiotics. Umberto Eco worked with this a lot – the giving of signs, like your hand gestures, in writing – where the message becomes more powerful by use of something symbolic. Tricky, but it involved writing, not incons.

    On the other hand, why do we need an icon, when a simple clear sentence will do? We can say it or write it – to explain how we feel, what we want to show. We have too many shorthand symbols and not enough longhand messages.

    Write sentences.


    Or a letter. Now those are good. Better than a bucket of icons.

    Ask someone – anyone, how they feel when the get a letter in the mail. Yes, the real mail!

    No icons for me.

    Real male,



  2. I too have always hesitated about pressing the ‘like’ button on a moving piece that is sad or touching in some way.
    I agree that in those instances I prefer to write some small comment instead such as ‘thinking of you’ or ‘I understand your pain’.


  3. I’ve had so man;y times when I’ve wished for a button other than “like” to express empathy where “like” doesn’t feel quite appropriate. I go ahead and click like because I know that every time I get one it lifts my spirits and I hope that it will do that for the writer of the post. Good point.


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