Emoticons Don’t Fix Tone in Email

A generational business gap exists in the professional communication realm, especially when sending internal emails. The gap relates to the use of emoticons-the use of a Colon Hyphen Right Parenthesis to make a “smiley face”. 🙂  From a purely professional perspective, we shouldn’t use them. They aren’t professional. To be honest, I DO use them, depending on who I’m “talking” to in email. We have become a society that relies on virtually instant written communication, but as a species we aren’t designed to communicate only in words on a screen. We miss tone, inflection, and intent when we can’t read body language or look someone in the eye. And those of us in the right brained world, the social bees, tend to compensate by providing a symbolic version. My preference is the *-). To me that’s a wink, just meant as a friendly sign off on a comment. My emails don’t proliferate with them and certainly not in a request for a meeting or an email discourse on starting the problem solving process. (Because you know if it takes more than 3 emails to solve a question, it’s time to have a meeting or at least get on the phone if colleagues work in different towns, states, countries).

What brought this up is a twitter conversation with a former student now in the professional world. She actually indicated that she’s seen the use of an emoticon placed next to a demanding directive from a supervisor–not at her current place of employment. And she thought that was normal. It’s not. If you are sharing a funny story with a colleague in building rapport with them especially if you live/work in different communities, then an emoticon, while still not professional, can be used. I’m not trying to be an emoticon dictator. But really if you are exchanging information-especially in a formal request to ask employees to do something or to share a report or other professional emails likely to be archived as professional documents, then leave the emoticons off.

Professionals use them. I follow a sales and marketing guru who clearly loves people and relationships. And occasionally she’ll send her version of the smiley face with her e-news in the section where she posts a personal note. This is her style. doesn’t bother me; but I can see how this style would be off putting for someone else.

My advice to my student is to watch the use of emoticons when communicating with colleagues and supervisors at work. Know exactly when it is appropriate-and ideally avoid it. Save them for your text messages or tweets to your friends.


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