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Srinath Sridharan

Independent markets commentator. Media columnist. Board member. Corporate & Startup Advisor / Mentor. CEO coach. Strategic counsel for 25 years, with leading corporates across diverse sectors including automobile, e-commerce, advertising, consumer and financial services. Works with leaders in enabling transformation of organisations which have complexities of rapid-scale-up, talent-culture conflict, generational-change of promoters / key leadership, M&A cultural issues, issues of business scale & size. Understands & ideates on intersection of BFSI, digital, ‘contextual-finance’, consumer, mobility, GEMZ (Gig Economy, Millennials, gen Z), ESG. Well-versed with contours of governance, board-level strategic expectations, regulations & nuances across BFSI & associated stakeholder value-chain, challenges of organisational redesign and related business, culture & communication imperatives.

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Emoting Humans, From Caveman To The Digital Era

Expression of human emotions has changed and taken shape over the centuries. In the context of technology, have we evolved ? For this is critical to the way modern businesses operate, and how society accepts or codifies what is normal

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Emotions matter. Emotions are a necessity. Emotion, as an important ingredient of life itself, has intrigued psychologists and all those who are interested in understanding human behaviour. Emotions (referring to the physiological sensation) and feelings (referring to the psychological awareness of those sensations) are a longstanding topic of research. Emotion has remained a core attraction and has been in debate for centuries - especially in the thinking and discussions about rationality. 

An early proponent-thinker about the field of rationalism, René Descartes, was a huge influence in the body of work around emotion and reason. Scientific research and advancements have contributed to an evolved and deeper view of emotions, especially as an essential and important mechanisms of thought. One must thank Neurosciences for our understanding on how emotions function and how reason shapes in the human brain. Of late, we have also learnt and grudgingly accepted that emotions and reason work in tandem, and not as ‘either-or’.

Emotions play an important role in our daily lives. Our actions and thoughts are governed by our emotional experiences. Consequently, emotions are also reflected in our actions and thoughts. In addition, they play a significant role in human life by way of preparing us for action, shaping our responses to situations and in dealing with events. They also influence and impact our social interaction. The myriad ways in which we deal with our emotions and emotional experiences influences the quality of our social interaction too.

Indic knowledge on human emotions 

In Indic wisdom, emotions are seen as resultant of human action or behaviour. Human emotions are complex experiential component of ahamkara. They are an important aspect of our life and determine what we make out of the life experiences. The Indian perspective lays emphasis on the experiential quality, i.e., the rasa, of this experience. It is argued that ahamkara or ego experiences pleasure and sadness in relation to pleasant or unpleasant circumstances due to its attachment and identification with the objects of outside world or one's own physical body itself. Desires are the root cause of this attachment and identification resulting in experience of varied emotions/affect. Hence, the emotions are the functions (dharma) of ahamkara and not the atman, or the true self and “happiness” or “bliss” is seen as the true nature of the atman. 

According to Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, suffering is due to ignorance about one's true “self” (avidya). Hence, suffering or dukha arises from within and not from the outside world. This view of emotions lays emphasis on desires as the root cause of emotional upheavals. They are seen as modification of desire and attachment. The desires are seen as arising from the contact and attachment of the ego or ahamkara with the external world and are caused by a sense of imperfection, incompleteness or non-fulfillment. Ego or ahamkara is differentiated from the true Self or atman. 

Furthermore, the Indic traditions understand Rasas as the essence of our emotions that exist in both the body and the mind. The Sanskrit word rasa has many meanings, including emotion, mood and feeling. Tradition defines nine basic rasas: joy (hasya), fear (bhayanaka), anger (raudra), love (shringar), courage (vira), sadness (karuna), amazement (adbhuta), disgust (vibhatsya) and calmness (shanti). All of us experience these emotions, with varying degrees of feeling. Rasas are created by bhavas - the state of mind. The rasa theory has a dedicated section in the Sanskrit work - Natya Shastra - by Sage Bharata Muni - a treatise on arts from the 1st millennium BCE. The Bhagavad-Gita  traces all emotional experiences to the trigunas, i.e., sattva, rajas, and tamas. 

These have withstood the test of the millennium years. Human emotions have not changed or it’s demonstration or display to the world. It is only that we have adapted those learnings into different medium (computer screen, mobile phone screens, paper etc.). However, is it even possible to depict emotions through these digital mediums? Can the humans understand the intensity of emotions conveyed through digital mediums?

Internet & Emotions 

The Internet, social media and the culture of messaging has greatly changed the way we communicate. In a world where attention spans are getting shorter, and everyone wants instant solutioning using instant messaging, how does one engage the audiences and recipients of the messaging? Since body language and verbal tone do not translate in our text messages or e-mails, we have developed alternate ways to convey nuanced meaning. The most prominent change to our online style has been the addition of two new-age hieroglyphic languages : emoticons and emoji. Emoticons are punctuation marks, letters, and numbers used to create pictorial icons that generally display an emotion or sentiment. Both evolution and science sit behind the power of visual communications.  

Computer-mediated communication generates alternative individual-power dynamics and social-conventions. This, in turn, normalises newer ways of understanding, speaking, emoting. This change is evident in the offline as much as the online digital space. Social media posts, blog, online forums, online chat are replete with outbursts and unabashed   expressions of raw sentiment - be it public display of affection, love, passion to a cause or a narrative, expression of compassion. But this also brings with it negative emotions such as hate, disregard, again expressed boldly and openly, many a times without fear of repercussions, due to the perception about the anonymity that digital medium offers.  

The form of our communication matters: Camera phones, access to cheaper data packets for smart phones and social media have played a role in the rise of highly visual styles of online communication. Of late, content on digital medium have moved to video-image-formatted content. For example, the platforms like Instagram, Snapchat are rich with it. Including audio visual in digital communication positively impacts the emotional reach.  Like in physical life, we exhibit different approaches and levels of emotion in our social media behaviour too. Many of us are “in control, and moderation”, while others are energised by their emotions to exhibit outlandish behaviour, otherwise not seen in their individual lives. 

Emoticons & Emojis

The concept of emoticon came into being, after a joke went wrong at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982. A gag about a fake mercury spill posted to an online message board sent the university into a tizzy, and because of this confusion, Dr. Scott E. Fahlman suggested that jokes and nonjokes be marked by two sets of characters we now recognize as standard emoticons: the smiley face :-) and the frowning face :-(. After this, the emoticons became a big hit among the Internet users. 

It’s later avatar, Emoji - from the Japanese e, “picture,” and moji, “character”, is a slightly more recent invention. Not to be confused with their predecessor, emoji are pictographs of faces, objects, and symbols. Shigetaka Kurita’s emoji, which were intended for a Japanese user base, were very simple—only 12 pixels by 12 pixels—and were inspired by manga art and kanji characters. Kurita is often credited with inventing emoji in 1999, though Japanese conglomerate SoftBank released the first set of emojis in 1997.  

As in a face-to-face meeting, Emoticons help compensate for the nonverbal aspect of communication in the virtual world of instant messages. Brain research confirms that emoticons are a kind of nonverbal information, and that the other party’s emotions are perceived in communications using emoticons. Further, the research confirms the brain sites dealing with both verbal and nonverbal information are activated more strongly when emoticons are added to sentences, than in the case of plain text. They are simple means of communication an altogether much different from emotional speech or facial expressions.

At best, the emoticons do not primarily indicate the writers’ inner state of emotions, instead, they provide information about how an utterance is supposed to be interpreted. In other words, they act as a contextualisation cue. Research confirms that the use of emoticons has a positive impact on the interpretation of the message, especially when the message is ambiguous, or the tone is uncertain.

A closer examination reveals that emojis are most often used in four ways: as emotion markers for facial expressions, or as joke/irony markers to identify jokes when used with humoristic utterances, and often used as a hedge (face threatening acts) to soften a request/rejection or complaint, and acts as a positive politeness strategy. Often it is used to strengthen a greeting, or when expressing gratitude. All of these inform and organise social relationships.  Research also establishes that ‘emoticons can be used to convey emotion, establish social presence, and strengthen relationships online’.

Many linguists claim that emoji is a way towards the creation of new universal language, which means that humans are shifting again from words to symbols and images. The way we communicate on social media is also evolving and rapidly changing. A new language of images is becoming so popular in the recent era by using emoji, pictographs, and ideographs instead of lengthy explanations by writing lengthy texts. 

In a nutshell, Emoticons are symbols, often used in text-based communication, such as in emails, text messages, and social media posts, to convey tone or emotion and add personality to written communication. They are different from emoji (literally stands for “picture word.” in Japanese). But both these represent the ability to showcase human emotions in the digital form.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines emotional intelligence as “the ability to understand the way people feel and react and to use this skill to make good judgements and to avoid or solve problems”. How does one solve for emotional intelligence in the digital medium? Emotional intelligence is linked to our abilities to interact in our social settings.  Are there learnings from human evolution in understanding expressions of emotion better, as they emerge in the current digital era?

Emotions & evolution of mediums

“Becoming aware of the capabilities of the digital realm as a space and channel for the expression of emotions involves considering the Internet and its applications not as an instrument that we use, but as a place of experience and subjectivity; rather than a means of communication it is a space that we inhabit and that it inhabits us.”.

  •  Dr. Javier Serrano-Puche, Senior Lecturer in the School of Communication and researcher of the Institute for Culture and Society of the University of Navarra (Spain).

Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist argues that emotions have an affective influence and drive decision-making, influencing judgement and choice.  Emotions mediate the content of thought and depth and goals. And emotions triumph over rationality every time. For human thought is not rational, much of it is ‘unconscious’, ‘automatic’, ‘emotional’ and ‘heuristic in nature’ as research confirm. Our facial expressions (non-verbal) are an effective means for sharing emotions among humans. Emotions are not historically specific but can vary across cultures and societies. With the global travel patterns of humans, and the constant interspersal of movies, books, serials across the globe, won’t the cultures be transported across the world? For example, the rapid popularity of K-Pop and K-serials is one such influence.

Emotional validation is a way of supporting and strengthening relationships, offering different opinions on the same thing. The complexity of digital medium communication makes the distinction of the intent of communication impossible.  Artificial Intelligence researcher Jean-Claude Heudin had once said that to be qualified as an emotional creature, you must fulfil three requirements: The capacity to express, capacity to detect, and capacity to personally feel emotions. Computational systems are relatively well-qualified for the first two tasks but struggle with the third. The AI systems can learn and display empathy through programming, but it doesn't mean they experience it. 

Emotion, as we understand it, is deeply embodied, mentally and physically.  As the digital era ages further, social scientists might probe further in exploring the close connections between humans, sense, sensibilities, emotions, and social engagement. Technology, for all its claim, glory or gory, is the product of human efforts. At least until machines overtake humans. Emotions will reign strong, and humans will continue learning to emote with various evolving mediums.

Dr. Srinath Sridharan - Author, Policy Researcher & Corporate Advisor 

Twitter : @ssmumbai 

Steve Correa - Executive Coach, OD Consultant &   Author

Twitter : @SteveCorrea1122

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