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Wednesday, 23 October 2013 10:10

Some SCIENCE Behind the Smiley… Emoticons and Their Possible Impact on the Workplace

Written by Hannah J. Gacey, Lisa Moore and Jim Gallo

For over 30 years, emoticons have been used as symbols added to text based communication to convey a sender’s state of mind or the emotional nuance of a message. Many of us spend most of our day communicating through electronic means, when in fact, sometimes we are close enough to hold hands or are sitting in the next room. Even casual greetings are sometimes sent by text. Emails and text messages are inherently one-dimensional, which makes it nearly impossible to convey emotion. In traditional face to face conversations; we have facial expressions, tonality, hand gestures, arm movements and lots of other cues to help us interpret the emotions of the message. Hence, with the increase in computer-mediated messages and our limited ability in communicating our emotions within these messages, we use emoticons J. This article presents our own and others research in regards to emoticons and their possible impact in the workplace.

But what does a smiley emoticon mean in my business email?

The word emoticon stems from a combination of the words “emotion” and “icon” with the origins of the smiley emoticon dating back to the early 1980s. Today, these symbols are widely used in emails, instant messages, texting, blogging and many other forms of electronic communication. There is an extensive assortment of emoticons with varying emotional interpretations. The most common emoticon is the smiley, :) or :-), that is often used to express a sender’s happy emotional state, or that a particular written remark has a pleasant connotation. These symbols require very little effort to add to a text based message, using a few extra additional keystrokes.

Email and Emoticons in Business Contexts

Many researchers agree that email is the most common form of business communication among employees and their coworkers, customers, and clients. With the increasing use of technology, including mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, i-devices), employees appear to be constantly connected to work email accounts. A rapid exchange of email messages in a short period of time, in the midst of other daily work activities, might cause employees increased stress in the work environment, which may lead to shallow and reactive email messages. Emoticons offer an efficient solution to include emotional tone in a written message; however, the inclusion of these symbols has traditionally been considered unprofessional. Just fifteen years ago, business professionals stood by the idea that emails should be written as letters and advised that though emoticons in business contexts were attempts to soften abrasive email messages, they should be avoided because they were unprofessional. Views on email etiquette have since evolved, and business related interactions in many situations are simply less formal than they used to be. The outcome is that emoticons, professional or not, are being used by the younger generations in the workforce who are accustomed to communicating with them.

Why They Might Seem Mad in that Email - The Negativity Effect

Face to face conversations benefit from nonverbal cues that clarify vague messages. In email, the intentions or the emotional tone of the email sender as perceived by the recipient are inferred, and are frequently incorrect. Research suggests that individuals use their own experiences as a reference point to increase clarity in vague situations. Unfortunately, many people tend to overestimate how well they communicate and evaluations about the email sender’s intended emotional tone can differ based on numerous factors.

Researchers who have examined the accuracy of emotional perceptions in work-related email offer several factors that influence recipient judgments including: gender, relative status, and the use of emoticons in messages. From this research, experts propose the negativity effect in email, which suggests that the email recipient is likely to perceive an email as more negative than the email sender intended (Walther & D’Addario, 2001; Byron, 2008). These perceptions may be linked to the absence of nonverbal cues and the resulting ambiguity of emotional tone, which increases the salience of any negative information presented in the text of the message.

Our Research on the Subject

Florida Institute of Technology I/O psychology researchers recently examined the effects of specific email message and sender characteristics in business-related email messages. By examining characteristics such as sender status (manager vs. coworker), gender, and emoticon usage, we aimed to uncover how these factors influence perceptions of negative affect and professionalism in a business context. In the study, 152 working professionals responded to a series of questions after reading emails both with and without smiley emoticons that were part of a fictional workplace situation.

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. :-)

The results showed that emoticons reduced the negativity effect in the business-related email messages, such that the same message sounded less negative when paired with a positive (smiley) emoticon. The findings suggest that these symbolic emotional cues help “clue in” the recipient towards a particular emotion (in this study, the smiley face emoticon represented a more positive tone), thereby clarifying the intentions of the sender. The use of emoticons might represent a new form of writing that is adapting to the computer-mediated communication realm where nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and tone, are absent. If emoticons can clarify the emotional intentions of the sender, this could help employees in remote locations more accurately “read” the emotional content of a message, which is important due to their inability to sort out miscommunication “over the water cooler” (i.e., face to face). Emoticons also might help mitigate cyber aggression and the resulting escalation of conflict over email by clarifying messages and giving the conversation a more “light-hearted” tone (Freidman & Currall, 2003).

Additionally, the fictional coworker’s message ratings were perceived as significantly more negative than the ratings of the manager’s message. This might stem from theory presented by Humphrey et al. (2008) that one of the most important roles for a leader is to manage the mood of his or her employees. Leadership research has stressed the need for leaders to be effective communicators; therefore, we might assume that managers have more motivation to control their emotions compared to those of lower organizational status. In practice, a recipient might “hear” the tone of the message as more neutral from a manager because their concept of a “manager” is such that he or she would not expect to read a negative emotional display from someone of higher organizational status.

There was also a statistical interaction between the sender’s gender, recipient’s gender, sender status and emoticon usage. Male readers perceived the emails as significantly more negative in the coworker condition than the manager condition, whereas female readers did not have a significant effect for perceived negative affect between the two conditions. As we just mentioned, Humphrey et al. (2008) explains that leaders must be effective “emotional managers” and regulate his or her emotional displays to manage the mood of his or her employees. It is possible that this function is more salient for men than women. Research contends that females tend to use emoticons more often or are perceived to use them more than males, so perhaps male readers might find email messages that include emoticons from male coworkers to be “awkward” or representations of sarcasm due to gender communication styles or stereotypes.

Unprofessional, but Friendly

The results also demonstrated that messages including emoticons were rated as less professional, yet their use was statistically related with the perceived friendliness of the email senders. Therefore, those senders who used emoticons were perceived as friendlier than those that did not. However, those who were perceived as more friendly were also perceived as less professional. This finding suggests that the use of emoticons might be useful depending on the work environment and intention of the message. The sender must weigh the possible perceptions of unprofessionalism against their attempts to appear friendly. The recommendation put forth is for the sender to recognize his or her audience and environment (e.g., organizational or departmental norms for emoticon use), as well as the relationship between the sender and recipient when considering the use of emoticons. Additionally, the science highlights that we should raise employee awareness about what they are trying to communicate in an email and that every message has emotional implications. While we are all enamored by our technology devices, authors included, we would suggest that we ask ourselves one question if we feel the need to include an emoticon in our computer-mediated message: “Would this message be better received if we delivered it the old school way by using such outdated practices like using a phone (not texting) or walking a few feet to the adjacent office?” While technology has given us the ability to communicate to more people more quickly, it has imposed more limitations on ensuring the correct message has been delivered. Therefore, based on the research and practical experience, we believe computer-mediated communication training is an important piece of employee development within the workplace.

Hannah J. Gacey, M.S. is a relationship manager at Accent Technologies, Inc. and recently completed her master’s degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology.

Lisa Moore, M.S. is a social media specialist for the Institute of Cross Cultural Management and a PhD student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology.

Jim Gallo, M.S., SPHR is the associate director for the Center for Organizational Effectiveness and a PhD student in Industrial and Organizational Psychology at Florida Institute of Technology.

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