What's in a wink? • Debretts (2024)

We all deploy a multiplicity of facial expressions, but they’re not always clear forms of communication. These non-verbal signals are open to interpretation, and we learn at an early age to contextualise a smile or a frown, and then judge whether it is indicating delight or derision, confusion or concentration.

But some signals defy easy interpretation, and a wink is a prime example. For a start, it is not a universally accessible signal – some people actually cannot wink (or arch an eyebrow). But for those of us who can, winking requires some careful forethought. It is a deeply ambiguous signal, and open to misinterpretation.

For many people, a wink is a flirtatious gesture, a form of eye contact that creates a sense of collusion and intimacy between two people. This is probably the most common interpretation of the wink, especially between consenting, mutually attracted adults. But beware, in a different context a wink can easily be misinterpreted as sleazy, especially if it is exchanged between strangers (for example on the tube) – it’s all about using it when flirtation is appropriate.

The sense of complicity that a wink brings can also be used to reinforce friendship. It could, for example, be used between two friends who are making fun of someone who doesn’t have a clue they’re being gently mocked, to signal that they are sharing the joke. But if this signal is intercepted, the wink can easily lead to a sense of rejection and exclusion.

A wink can also be used to underline that a remark is intended as a joke, or to underscore teasing. If there is a sense that this form of humour might be misinterpreted, a wink is a useful way of indicating that a remark should not be taken seriously.

A wink is also a commonly-used way of communicating thanks or conveying friendliness. It is reinforcing behaviour – a non-verbal signal that serves to emphasise the merely verbal.

On the other hand, and confusingly, the wink can be used to undermine verbal communication. If someone is speaking with apparent sincerity, but then winks, most people would interpret this as an ironic footnote to the remark, indicating that what is being said should not be taken literally or seriously. It could also be used to indicate that a lie is being told, or a double entendre is being signalled. In all of these cases a wink is intended to be unsettling, an invitation to venture into the uncertain territory beyond the merely verbal.

These multiple ambiguities are magnified when the wink is used digitally, as an emoji. A wink emoji will tend to inject a note of sarcasm into messages, especially when it is not entirely clear how to interpret them; “I thought Emma’s dress was extraordinary ;)”comes across as sarcastic. If a remark already comes laden with sarcasm, a wink can mitigate it; “You looked absolutely wrecked ;)”. However, the world of emojis is never that simple, and the winky face is often scattered throughout texts for all sorts of reasons beyond the merely sarcastic, often indicating a kind of desperate humour.

In conclusion, the wink is one of the most ambiguous of the non-verbal signals, and in some cultures, such as China and India, is seen as rude and vulgar and should not be used. You should be aware that if you do wink, you have very little control over how it will be interpreted. If you are interested in absolute clarity of communication, and you eschew any gestures that might be unsettling or provocative, you might be wise to forego winking, and to revert to clear verbal communication and universally recognised gestures and body language.

What's in a wink? • Debretts (2024)
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