Why using smiley faces in work emails could be damaging your reputation

Posted by
Moya Crockett
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

Work emails are a tricky business. If your office is very formal, maintaining a serious, personality-free tone in messages to colleagues can be difficult (particularly if you usually communicate with your friends via Instagram memes and dancing lady emojis). But a more casual workplace doesn’t necessarily make things any easier to navigate. Do you continue your banter with your desk buddy over email, or keep things strictly professional? And is it ever acceptable to sign off a note to a co-worker with an ‘x’?

Everyone has different opinions on the above. But according to a new study, there’s one thing that we should all be eliminating from our work emails – and that’s the smiley face emoji.

Researchers at Amsterdam University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and the University of Haifa recently teamed up to investigate the effect of smileys and similar emoticons on professional communication.

Their findings, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, reveal that these seemingly innocuous symbols rarely make a positive impact – and can actually seriously undermine what we’re trying to say.

Dr Ella Glikson of the BGU Department of Management explains that while we may use a smiley face to seem more likeable or to soften a message, it will seldom have the desired result.

“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” she says.

Over 500 participants from 29 countries were recruited for a series of experiments, designed to examine the effects of emojis on how people were perceived in the workplace.

In one experiment, volunteers were asked to read a work-related email from a stranger, and then to evaluate how they perceived that person’s “competence” and “warmth”. Some of the participants received messages containing smiley faces, while others did not.

Contrary to what we might expect, email senders were not seen as being any friendlier if they included a smiley. However, they were viewed as being less competent.

Dr Glikson says that including smileys in introductory emails can also hinder communication further down the road.

“The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to emails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the email did not include a smiley,” she says.

Participants were more likely to assume an email had been written by a woman if it included a smiley – even if the gender of the sender was unknown. However, perceived gender did not appear to affect assessments of competence or friendliness.

Watch: What does your email inbox number say about you?

But if you’re now worrying about that time you included a smiley in a message to a close colleague, you’re probably safe. This study was specifically investigating the impact of smileys on professional emails from strangers, and more research is needed to test whether they also have a negative effect on communication with familiar co-workers.  

Neither does it mean that you have to be sombre at all times in the workplace. The researchers also investigated the influence of real-life smiles on office communication, and found that these had a markedly positive impact on how emails were interpreted.

Participants were shown photographs of ‘email senders’ with smiling or neutral faces, and asked who they thought was more competent and/or friendly. The happier faces won out on both counts, suggesting that being smiley in real life can lead to a more positive interpretation of formal emails.

“People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial ‘encounters’ are concerned, this is incorrect,” says Dr Glikson.

“For now, at last, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.”

She concludes: “In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile.”

Images: iStock


Share this article


Moya Crockett

Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.