The emoji of our not-really-post-but-wish-it-were-post pandemic summer

·6 min read
A collage of emoji with the hot face emoji in the center
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Apple)

How does it feel to be back in society — back outside — after months indoors, dreaming about finally seeing your presumed-to-be-hot barista’s face without a mask on or going to the club and brushing up against someone’s sweaty bicep on your way to the bar?

For many of us, it’s a combination of flustered, excited, panicked, stressed. Thirsty, even, in its most nonliteral meaning.

The truth is, no one has quite come up with a name that perfectly captures the emotional chaos of our not-really-post-but-wish-it-were-post pandemic summer. But there’s something else that might — something that goes beyond words. It’s hot face emoji. Yes, the hot face emoji.

Look at this ambiguous literal red circle and ask yourself: Is it burning up from actual heat? The answer is ... of course, and so are we because L.A. in July and global warming. Is it scared? Naturally, and who wouldn’t be now that the highly contagious Delta variant is claiming lives of the most vulnerable, causing the virus to surge once again and prompting L.A. County to require masks indoors. Is it out of breath? Obviously — and we, too, are exasperated after trying to hold an in-person conversation for longer than two minutes.

The hot face emoji has range. The kind of range we need as we navigate the messiness and uncertainty and elation of reintegrating back into our not-really-post-but-wish-it-were-post pandemic summer while trying to cope with the repercussions and fears of the last 18 months. In the last month, I've been out with friends, which brings me joy. Each time, the conversation has naturally veered off into an anxiety-inducing, "What if we have another lockdown?"

Joy and anxiety, wrapped up in a nifty package — that's the hot face emoji in action.

Hot face emoji with arrows pointing to the controversial "eyes" and "nostrils"
Hot face emoji with arrows pointing to the controversial "eyes" and "nostrils"

At workplaces — where some employees are begrudgingly returning to their IRL conference rooms and others are drowning in eternal WFH — the hot face emoji has become a rallying cry. “This emoji is having a moment,” my boss recently commented after I liberally sprinkled it in a Slack message, confetti-style, to convey excitement and disbelief.

It's also having its moment in meme world, where things typically get picked up, remixed and shared when they're important to the culture in some way. A colleague of mine, Siena, sent me a meme that had been circulating on her feed recently. It asked: Are the hot face emoji's eyebrows actually its eyes and its eyes actually its nostrils? It's the most perfect memes that shake up your world and make you question everything you thought you knew. Once she saw the eyebrows-as-eyes version, Siena couldn't unsee it. (I'll let you be the judge). The joke only made my obsession with this tiny digital symbol even deeper.

The hot face emoji is subversive! It’s complex! It’s more than what it seems.

Take any of the following scenarios.

You’re in a big group of friends that you haven’t seen in over a year and you’re basking in a mixed feeling of deep happiness and screeching social anxiety: hot face emoji.

You’re getting ready to go on an in-person date with someone you’ve been chatting with on Hinge for months and they reveal that they’re not vaccinated: hot face emoji.

You’re at a coffee shop, high on caffeine, pretending to look busy, when you make fleeting but electric eye contact with the attractive customer who just walked in with a cute dog: hot face emoji.

You set out to have a Hot Vax Summer and the next thing you know you’ve been sending someone’s son or daughter “good morning” texts for a month straight (oops!): hot face emoji.

The hot face emoji — and all emojis, really — are the equivalent of the look you shoot someone when you don't have any more words but you still need to communicate something important about how you're feeling. Our not-really-post-but-wish-it-were-post pandemic summer is the season of exchanging such looks. We all know what we've collectively been going through and still are, but we've run out of ways to talk about it. Sometimes a glance, a shrug or yes, an emoji, wraps up our feelings better than we ever could.

Emojipedia.org, like a Wikipedia for emojis, describes the hot face emoji as: “A reddish-orange face with furrowed eyebrows, tongue stuck out, and beads of sweat, as if overheated from high temperatures. ... May also represent physical attractiveness (slang, hot).”

According to my colleague Siena, "the hot face emoji says a couple of things. … I think the top one is that you’re down bad for something or someone. Could be a crush, a plate of bomb food, a vacation spot."

There are variations of the emoji, depending on the platform or device. Samsung’s skews a bit more orange and doe-eyed while WhatsApp’s features not one but three sweat beads. All versions still manage to convey the same feeling of: “Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!”

Hot face emojis on Samsung, What'sApp and Apple
Hot face emojis on Samsung, What'sApp and Apple

And it’s not just the intimate, personal moments in our post-pandemic lives when the emoji feels appropriate. Larger moments in the culture over the last couple of months have called for it as well.

Remember when ASAP Rocky called Rihanna “The love of my life,” in that May GQ interview? (Not to mention the photos of them cuddling at a bar, her in a pink furry hat, him in a burgundy tank top, that we were blessed with after.) Double hot face emoji.

Then there was the 21-year-old sprinter with fire-orange hair, Sha’Carri Richardson, who wowed us all by taking the title of America’s fastest woman at the final trials for Team USA, only to be barred from the 100 meters at the Tokyo Olympics for testing positive for marijuana. That was the hot face emoji in its best and worst forms.

Or when the unlikely reunion of Bennifer singlehandedly restored our interest in celebrity culture (which went dark during quarantine)? You guessed it: hot face emoji.

When things are moving fast — and in the last few months, they have certainly been really, really fast — you need an emoji that can keep up.

If you're anything like me, you're growing to resemble that crimson face more and more each day. It's quickly found its way to top left of your frequently used emoji section. It's appearing more and more in your group chats and Slack channels.

Is the hot face emoji the emoji for our times? Possibly. At least until we know what's going on. It will be here at least until we get COVID-19 case numbers down again. Or get used to looking people in the eye. Or...

At least for summer.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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