There are plenty of emojis with cryptic meanings—the upside-down smiley face, the face with no mouth, the transparent face—but there’s nothing quite like the melting smiley face. It’s taken over the use of pictures to describe feelings, and it’s safe to say that the melting smiley face is worth more than a thousand words. That’s because it has a variety of meanings.
Profiles of the melting smiley face written up in the New York Times, GQ, and The Sydney Morning Herald describe it as an emoji of the current times. The face has a sort of irony to it while alluding to the apocalyptic nature of a world struck with climate disasters, nuclear weaponry, and right-leaning politicians taking power. But what does the melting smiley face really mean?
The melting smiley face has many meanings, the primary of which is a sort of negative feeling amidst being “fine.”
According to Emojipedia, “The eyes and mouth slip down the face, yet still maintain a distorted smile. This quality lends this emoji to sarcasm. Can be used literally to talk about extreme heat. Can also be used metaphorically to talk about embarrassment, shame, a slowly sinking sense of dread, or feeling overwhelmed in some way.”
WikiHow also gives several meanings and examples of how to use the melting face. It can be used to denote embarrassment, for example:
“I just tripped in front of my crush .”
It’s not just embarrassment, though. It denotes a cheeky shame—like, ‘I’m still smiling because I’m in front of my crush, but I’m also melting of embarrassment.’
Another use of the melting face is to mark being overwhelmed or stressed. Think about the feeling of all that pressure during a period of burnout—it burns us to the point of literally feeling like we’re melting. WikiHow’s example is perfect:
“Haha it’s fine I can totally do all of this in 2 days .”
Similar to using the melting emoji while being overwhelmed or stressed, it can also be used to show anxiety. Anxiety can often feel like an overload that makes our brains melt into a blob of thoughts and feelings blended together. Melting with a smile can show that we’re keeping it together on the outside while melting on the inside.
In fact, another instance in which we might keep it together on the outside but melt inside is when we’re infatuated with someone. So the melting face works for that too! When someone does something cute, like bring flowers on a date, and we’re texting our friends about it, we might use the melting face. It would be something like:
“How cute is he? He brought me flowers .”
And of course, the most literal use of the melting smiley face is to show how hot it is outside. In this case, it’s to show that we are quite literally melting, thanks to the heat.
Critics and language experts have called the melting smiley face the “Mona Lisa of emojis.”
In Feb. 2023, Thomas Mitchell wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that the melting face is “the sign of our times.” He explains that the face “became a global symbol of perseverance in the face of abject helplessness,” and was a fitting response to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. (The Melting Face was released in 2021.)
Thomas described its meaning the best way possible: “Melting Face didn’t translate to ‘I’m giving up’ but instead, ‘I’m giving it my very best, please send help.’” It’s the smile that hints that we’re still here and we’re still trying.
GQ’s Olivia Pym realized that the Melting Face “is an inward sinking that occurs below the surface and can't truly be seen from the outside. It is puddling in shame and stress while pretending to be fine.”
So as we go into 2024, we can keep melting along with the Earth … but we’re fine, really!