The ‘Slightly Smiling Face’ and Other Predicaments

I’ve said this here before – over the past few years my life has been increasingly and positively impacted by technology. I was quite techno-phobic in my younger days, the thought of having to upgrade or replace something (a phone, a laptop, an assistive device) would fill me with dread rather than excited anticipation. Even today, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a tech enthusiast. If it works, I’m happy. I’m not the type to read a bunch of articles, comparing my options before I purchase something. I’m not counting down the days to the release of the latest and best, I don’t even know what the latest and best is. I’m also not terribly fussed about blindness specific tech, either assistive tech or curative tech (such as the bionic eye for example). I don’t have a whole collection of apps for navigating around or identifying colours or whatever else there are apps for. I’m also not about to strap a network of wires to my face in order to see a bit more – but that’s just me.


No, it’s really the ability to connect with the world in the ways that most seeing people do that I enjoy so much. Skype on my IPhone, for example, is so much easier to use, with Voice Over, than on my laptop where I always had to ask someone to assist me at some point. Uber has quite literally changed my life and now that there is an ‘uber assist’ option in the early stage of development I suspect I’ll have an even happier time. Just being able to manage my calendar, emails and other communication easily is a source of great joy for me, especially as these were not always tasks achieved with ease in my pre-smartphone days.


At the same time, I know that for many visually impaired people this is all a source of deep anxiety either because the required assistive devices are out of financial reach or because, for a variety of reasons, individuals may struggle to get to grips with certain elements of particular devices or, in complete frustration, have packed an expensive, much recommended device away in the back of a cupboard. Of course, being constantly assured or, more negatively, chastised by the “tech savvy blind community” that its actually all very simple and you should really download this and install that only serves to ramp up the anxious suspicion that one is increasingly falling behind and losing touch.


And that’s really it – we want to be in touch. We want to be in touch with the things happening in our worlds and we want to be in touch with each other. In my life, privileged as I am to have access to a smartphone that I feel comfortable using, the ‘keeping in touch’ mostly happens through Whatsapp and Facebook. Even though most seeing people are completely perplexed by my phone yammering away at top speed, often asking me if it’s speaking English, generally I find these platforms of communication quick and easy to access. And yet there are, and will always be, certain things that I simply can’t engage with or which I struggle to interpret because these platforms are built primarily for those who are seeing, rather than for those of us who are listening.


I feel like there was a brief window, when we had just begun to transition from talking to each other over the phone to typing to each other over email and text message, where the seers and the listeners were on a similar page. That our assistive tech was not nearly as nifty as it is now does throw a bit of a spanner into the works of this argument but just go with me here for a minute.


Also, side note; when last did you have an actual conversation with someone over a landline? It’s a bit awkward; one kind of loses the knack. And yet, many were the evening’s that I would phone up a friend, after seeing them all day at school, and chat away for literally hours. “Call More Time” anyone? How many landline numbers do you remember? Right now I could call up the childhood homes of four of my good friends and the parents of two ex-boyfriends. If you were my friend in high school you might remember a clever little jingle designed to remember my landline number and if you do you should call me because that would be both awkward and fun. Nowadays the only time I call a landline is to order pizza or make a doctor’s appointment, both things I could also do online now that I come to think about it…

So yes, there came a time when we stopped talking and started typing. One of the predicaments we now faced was the problem of tone. Suddenly, it wasn’t always immediately obvious if someone was cross, flirting or being sarcastic. I suspect quite a lot of people fell afoul of this and got themselves into all kinds of trouble. But then we started winking at each other with semi-colons so that solved that. Is it Trevor Noah who does the bit on emoticons being like the cave paintings of the future?


I quickly learned to interpret the synthetically spoken version of these symbols – “colon right peren” for a smiley face, “colon left peren” for a sad face, “colon D” for a very happy face etc and that was pretty simple to get to grips with. But now, alas, gone are the colons and the brackets and suddenly I must contend with such puzzles as “sad pensive face” or “disappointed but relieved face” or, the ever ambiguous, “neutral face”. Also what’s the difference between a “neutral face” and an “expressionless face”? What’s the difference between a “confounded” and a “confused” face? And when will I ever have the occasion to send someone a “Smiling Pile of Pooh”? For those who are unaware, when you send me an emojie I’m not interpreting the little picture, I’m interpreting the verbal description my phone gives me of the little picture.


So, for example, what has caused me some confusion is the “slightly smiling face”. If I imagine a slightly smiling face I interpret this as non-committal, as though it comes along with a shrug and a sigh of, “I mean I’ll do it if you really need me to”. So if I get a message that says (and I use the word ‘says’ intentionally because the message is literally said to me), “Sure, I’d be happy to help out slightly smiling face”, this has the potential to send me into a spin of uncertainty about the motives of the sender; do they really want to help, have I pressured them to do something they don’t really feel like doing, am I inconveniencing them. Now maybe I am but maybe I’m just misinterpreting the “slightly smiling face”. What I have is the predicament of being unable to interpret tone in the same way that I would be able to if the conversation was being mediated by actual listening instead of the ‘listening-looking’ I have to do when I use Voice Over.


Now I do suspect that seeing people also struggle with the more ambiguous emojies of the “sad but also kind of happy with a sprinkling of nonchalance” variety. I made that last one up obviously. But it can’t be denied that emojies are a visual medium just like body language in the real world is a visual medium. In fact, emojies are virtual body language. And just as with body language in the real world, those of us who are non-visual struggle to interpret and participate in the seamless way that the seeing do or, at least, seem to.


Other elements of online communication that I find problematic are images, photographs and memes. So again for those who aren’t aware; if you send me an image of any kind via Whatsapp my phone will say, “Photo from ‘whatever your name is” which leaves me with nothing to work with. If you tag me in a meme on Facebook, as hilarious as it might be, my phone will provide me with the following information, “Image may contain text”. If you post photos my phone will identify certain key elements to give me at least some idea of what is contained in the image. This is a recently new development and is helpful but fragmented. So I may receive the following details, “Image may contain two people, people smiling, sunglasses, drink and outdoors”. I’ve been fascinated by the seemingly arbitrary moment when the children of friends stop being identified as ‘baby’ and start being identified as ‘person’. Some other friends have been reduced to their facial hair, “image may contain beard, outdoor and nature” leaving me with the bizarre mental image of a disembodied beard floating about in a forest glade.


Of course, while these descriptions can be helpful they can never fix the problem of blindness. Although I might hear, “Image may contain bride, wedding and outdoor”, the fact is, while I know there is a picture of you in a wedding dress, I can’t see that dress or your hair or the flowers you’re holding or the look on your face or all the things I want to see and although I wouldn’t be able to see those things in the real world either I would have the opportunity to have them described in more detail by real humans and I’m not above feeling you up.


I think by writing this I am asking for a few things. Am I asking for some sort of online utopia for the blind where all things are completely non-visual and mediated through listening rather than looking? Not at all! I am certainly not suggesting that you refrain from posting those pics of your lunch or your cat or your face. The world is a visual place and much of communication, both online and in the real world, is visually mediated in ways that are largely subconscious. This does make the point that disability is disabling, that no matter how much is done to make environments, actual and virtual, more accessible blindness is blindness and because it is blindness the things of sight will remain largely out of reach which is another blog post for another time. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t some helpful ways for the visual to engage with the non-visual online.

  1. It’s probably best not to send me pictures via Whatsapp unless you add a little description including any text that appears in the image
  2. If you tag me in something on Facebook (especially if it’s just me you’ve tagged because you think I’ll find something funny or interesting) please add a description including any text
  3. By the same token, if you share a video with no dialogue with me there is no way for me to interpret the content so probably best to just not

The bottom line really is that if you want me to see something keep in mind that I am seeing with my ears.


2 thoughts on “The ‘Slightly Smiling Face’ and Other Predicaments

  1. Thanks for another insightful article Michelle. You influence the level of care that I try to take in constructing my own writing through making me more aware of the need to be empathetic with readers and the task of interpretation. I’m learning more about the necessity to not only convey information clearly but to be cognizant of the processes required by readers to obtain the full meaning.


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