Pro tip: Keep the smiley faces out of your work emails, or else the person receiving the message may think you’re incompetent.
That’s according to a study published in “Social Psychological and Personality Science.” It calls itself “the first systematic investigation of the effects of smileys on first impression formation in work settings.”
As emoticons and other visual representations of language make their way into traditionally text-based communications such as emails and text messages, Ella Glikson, along with co-authors Arik Cheshin and Gerben A. van Kleef, wanted to study the effect the emoticons on the meaning of the message.
“I was very optimistic about the positive power of emoticons. But our initial results surprised me. So we focused on the specific effect of smileys on first impression in work context, and our results were very consistent across different experiments,” Glikson told CNN in an email.
‘A smiley is not a smile’
Using three different experiments with 549 participants from 29 different countries, Glikson, from Ben Gurion University in Israel, found that even if smileys have a positive effect on the tone of the message, that effect is often outweighed by the decrease in perception of competence.
In other words, as the authors wrote in the study, “a smiley is not a smile.”
That contrasts with actual face-to-face smiles, which make an individual appear “more attractive, sincere, trustworthy, warm, and competent.”
It makes it more difficult to work together
Beyond just impacting the perception of one’s competence, the use of emoticons also affected the willingness of the email’s recipient to share information, making it more difficult to work together.
“These lower perceptions of competence reduced the recipient’s information sharing behavior,” the authors concluded. The research was funded by a grant from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where van Kleef is a professor of social psychology.
Participants read various emails, some with emoticons and some without, to gauge their opinion of the email’s sender.
The simple conclusion: Keep the smiley faces out of formal emails.
“The norms for online communication might be confusing, as what works in an informal context could be devastating in the formal context,” Glikson said.
The rules need to be clearer
So how did the study authors come up with the idea to research the effects of emoticons?
“I noticed that when some teams were using a lot of emoticons, others used much less or none. I got very interested in what impact the emoticons may have on team processes and interpersonal interactions,” said Glikson.
The group with the most to gain (or lose) from the study is the young generation now entering the job market, Glikson says.
Having grown up in an age of cell phones, emoticons and e-slang, it is the young generation that has become most accustomed to crossing the line between the traditional written language and its far more modern variations.
“We think that as emoji evolve into a language, we need to carefully learn the rules and the limitations of this language,” Glikson said.