Emoticons At Work: Unprofessional Or Necessary Evil?

10/29/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 28, 2011

Many of us spend most of our day corresponding with people electronically. In my office we actually instant message each other instead of talking even though we are literally close enough to hold hands (we never hold hands). We try to combat the tonelessness of email by doing things like using multiple exclamation points and even throwing in the occasional emoticon. But do these smiley faces undermine our professional credibility or are they actually necessary?

Emoticons, or combinations of symbols that loosely depict the human face, have made their smiley way from tween texts to the outboxes of legitimate business people. There are arguments against them of course. They are childish, lazy, and indicate that you don’t trust your reader to understand the written language. But the truth is that until we have an "I’m not mad just busy" font, these silly symbols are the best way we’ve got to quickly convey tone and emotion electronically.

This is because as far as email is concerned, sarcasm or any other tone just doesn’t exist. Emails are necessarily one dimensional which makes it nearly impossible to convey nuance. In other words, when we read email we get stupid. In a traditional face to face conversation, besides the other person’s words we have facial expression, tonality, hand gestures, foot shuffling, belly patting, arm touching and lots of other tiny cues to figure out what the hell is going on. In email all we have is, “Did you set up that meeting with Richard?? Thx.”

If you thought that sounded mean, you’re not alone. Everyone thinks emails sound mean. Studies have shown that people have a natural negativity bias toward email. When an email is objectively positive the receiver thinks it’s neutral, and when it’s neutral they think it’s negative. Which is why we have to use emoticons.

Emoticons may be a necessary evil, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a right way and a wrong way to use them. First off, smiley faces are the ONLY kind of emoticon allowed in business correspondence. No shocked faces. No winks. And no frowny faces. A frowny face is somehow inherently sarcastic, and is never a good way to convey actual sadness or sympathy. Throwing “:-(“ on the end of a request to work on Saturday is going to make people hate you, and deservedly so. If you need a more complicated emoticon than the smiley, use your words.

Secondly, smileys are only really appropriate when you’re trying to convey actual happiness or sarcasm. For example, they can be used when you thank someone for a job well done, or when you tell them about the great coverage your new client got in The Wall Street Journal. They can also be used when you make a joke that could come off as serious in an email, like, “I didn’t think his article was boring at all :-)”

Smileys don’t work if you’re trying to manipulate someone into being happy about doing something they don’t want to do. For example, don’t ask someone to do a huge horrible project and then end the request with a smiley. Even if what the smiley is saying is “I know this sucks. I’m sorry” it looks like you're trying to convince them to be happy about something sucky by putting a a colon next to a parenthesis. It’s an emoticon not a psychotropic drug. Its powers of mood alteration are just not that powerful.

Finally, there is a big difference between the smileys that look like this :) and smileys that look like this . The simple or “unconverted” smiley is just better. It’s classier and looks less like something that was dreamed up in human resources to improve employee morale. It’s basically the difference between In-N-Out and McDonald's: they’re both essentially gross, but one manages to be cool and retro while the other is just corporate and horrible.

You may have noticed that when you're chatting online, your simple smileys get automatically converted into grinning yellow circles of horror. Luckily, most programs including Gchat allow you to set unconverted emoticons as your default in the preferences menu. While AIM does have an option for changing pictorial emoticons to text, your changes only show up in your own chat window. The person you're chatting with will still see emoticons as whatever their preferences are set to. On Facebook, yellow smileys are the default for chat, and there doesn't appear to be anything you can do about it.

Got a story about emoticon misuse? Tell us what happened in the comments section below.

Please send your tech etiquette questions to ramona.emerson@huffingtonpost.com