I have always disliked “smiley faces.” They seem rather silly to me. The emoticon for a smiley face (colon, hyphen, parenthesis) has been around since 1982, and a huge industry using pictographic symbols (generally referred to as emoji) for electronic communication has grown tremendously since the late 90s. Currently, you can’t watch tv without seeing McDonald’s ads using “emoji” to highlight their change in menu. In the ads, everyone, men as well as women and children seem on board.
Some experts suggest that emoticons do help individuals express both tone and emotion, which can be difficult using the written word and limited punctuation like the exclamation point (remember that using all caps equals shouting in email). But for emoticons to be useful, they need to be based on actual text.
What do we know about who uses emoticons and emoji? On the surface, their usage appears more common among millennials who generally use them as a shorthand, but differences go further than that. One linguist who analyzed emoticon use on Twitter, found that it varies by geography, age, gender, and social class. Friend groups often adopt a certain set of emoticons, almost like a slang or personal dialect.
It also has been documented that women use more emoticons than men, in fact, they use many more. Is that a useful gender divide or is it reminiscent of using a heart to dot an “i” in middle school? Does it make you appear grown-up and professional, or does it brand you as “cutesy” and juvenile.
What about the use of emoticons in the workplace? There are probably work environments where emoticons and emoji are acceptable—the computer industry and advertising come immediately to mind. However, most businesses still prefer (even insist on) the written word and conventional punctuation.
The following are some suggestions for limiting emoticon and emoji use in your job:
•Never send one to your boss or those in higher level positions. People at the top of the hierarchy tend to be more formal and usually older. You don’t want your memo to be dismissed because an emoticon identifies you as a younger worker or frivolous employee who cuts corners. Also, those who don’t use emojis may not understand them.
•In a similar way, emoticon use may call unwanted attention to the fact that you are a woman. Does that matter? Depending on the work culture, it may. Women often have enough hurdles and barriers to overcome in male-dominated workplaces. Why set up an additional barrier for yourself?
•Keep in mind that all work emails are the property of your employer. They may be archived on a daily basis. What you write today will live on after you are promoted or change positions. Never write anything that has the potential to embarrass you later.
•Be careful even when writing to close work colleagues. You never know when an email or tweet will be forwarded to a broader audience.
•Limit your emoticon and emoji use to your private correspondence. It may be a fun, convenient, and creative way to communicate with family and friends. It is not, however, the language of choice for business.