Emoticons at Work :)


By Katelyn Malloy

Photo courtesy of Phil Whitehouse.

A smiley face is one of the most innocent and simple international symbols throughout the thousands of different languages and cultures that exist. From the first cave drawing and ancient hieroglyphics to our street signs and religions, symbols have been a part of human life since the dawn of mankind. Today, we can see the evolution of symbols and pictures being incorporated into our ever growing technology and expanding communication abilities.

Office and business etiquette has drastically changed over the past five to ten years, and so has the way we use email to communicate. The contemporary workforce is multigenerational and with the amount of technological progress between generations, it can be difficult to have common values. The use of emoticons and emoji have sparked a debate on whether or not they could or do have a spot in a professional work place setting.

Since the 1980’s, emoticons have been used as “Typographical Art.” Since the Japanese unveiling of emoji in the 90’s there has been a great debate about whether or not emoji and emoticons can be an effective way of communication or if they’re unprofessional.

Emoticon” is a construction of the words “emotion” and “icon” that refers to a graphic representation of facial expressions, where as an “emoji” is a small digital image used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication.

Computer scientist Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University used a colon, hyphen, and a bracket in 1982 as a way for his students to tell the difference between his serious and frequently sarcastic writings. Some believe the first emoticon can be found in President Lincoln’s 1862 speech, where a semi-colon and closing parentheses appears to be a winking smiley face.

Emoji have made their way into the professional world as well as the literary world. Emoji Dick by linguist Fred Benenson is an emoji version of Moby Dick, and even holds a special place in the US Library of Congress.

A recent nationwide study conducted this past May by enterprise mobile messaging company Cotap, showed that American workers crave a stronger emotional bond in the workplace setting. The study claims 76 percent of American workers admit they have used emoji in digital communications to people in their professional life. Not being able to fully comprehend what a person is feeling or trying to convey through electronic communication can create stress in a work setting that usually leads to the receiver creating a negative bias.

Digital messaging systems like instant messenger, Gmail, Google Chat, and other emailing systems are the most popular way to communicate with coworkers, clients, and higher-ups regardless of psychical distance. Employees face a challenging struggle when trying to express emotions such as frustration, urgency, agreement, and excitement via email or instant message. Can emoticons make it easier to communicate these emotions in a workplace setting?

Most workers have experienced frustration at least once after reading a work related email. It’s that feeling of confusion when a worker is unable to define what tone a coworker, client, or boss is trying to convey.

Using emoticons and emoji in a work email has positive traits. They can express a person’s emotions while avoiding misconceptions and wrong impressions. Using emoticons in work emails with a close coworker seems common, even if it is a serious business letter.

Body language can be a very important aspect of communication. When receiving a request from a coworker or boss to complete a task, it’s impossible to see a friendly smile or a stressed expression. Emoticons can be utilized in work emails to express irony or a joke, to take the coldness out of a request, as well as soften rejection, correction, complaints, appraisals, and admissions.

Example Message:

I can’t make the meeting you scheduled because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed.


I can’t make the meeting you scheduled because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed. 🙂

With the use of emoticons and emoji growing in popularity, scientific evidence backs up the idea that they can be, and frequently are, extremely helpful. The Social Neuroscience journal published a study that found that the familiar faces we see as emoticons trigger facial recognition responses.

It might be that emoji and emoticons improve the level of communication in professional emails, however negative repercussions do exist. So, to use them or not to use them?

It depends on many aspects: the formality of the email, recipient, and even gender. A smiley face versus a winking face can win you the title of “Most Friendly in the Office” or win you a sexual harassment complaint in your file. Don’t think that just because emoji and emoticons can be helpful with communication in the workplace, that there aren’t rules.

Be wary that the misuse of emoticons can make you come off unprofessional and give you a negative image in the office—it all depends on the office. Different workplaces have different codes of conduct (whether written or unspoken). While a smiley face at the end of a message may be acceptable in some offices, it may be unacceptable in others.

If emoticons and emoji have found their way into the professional business world, they may be here to stay. Either way, knowing emoticon etiquette may be the next important trait to have that can deeply impact your career, or make a negative impression that reflects on your professionalism.