When the computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed the smiley face : – ) as a joke marker and the sad emoticon : – ( for non-jokes, he did this to fix a nagging problem. Body language does not translate well to paper or to this screen in front of you. In text, albeit offline or online, either your intentions are completely misunderstood, or you need an extra 100 words to explain the actual meaning of what you want to convey. Fahlmann’s aim was to economize computer-mediated interaction and judging by the omnipresence of smileys, his emoticon was successful.
A study published last week in The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication distinguishes three ways in which people use emoticons in workplace e-mails. On the subject of the use of emoticons in a professional atmosphere, the “nettiquette” – guidelines on computer-mediated communication – give conflicting advice. Either excessive use may signal emotional instability, or it is really helpful to clarify the meaning of a text. Thus, since the emoticon has an ambiguous position in the work environment, the researchers wanted to find out what the actual communicative function is of emoticons in workplace communication.
This research consisted of a discourse analysis of 1606 work-related emails between people that have email as their main communication. To analyse the use of emoticons, Austin’s Speech Act Theory and Brown & Levinson’s Politeness Theory served as guidelines, both providing insight into the reason of the use of emoticons and the effect. The Speech Act Theory predicts that the emoticon does in fact not signal an emotion, but aims for a certain effect of the expression. This might imply that there is no emotional meaning in a smiley, merely the hope that you come across as nice and cheerful. Politeness Theory suggests that emoticons are used as compensation when making a request. Who does not come across a handwritten note in the kitchen once in a while that says “Would you please clean this? :)”.
Out of this analysis, three different communicative functions of the smiley emerged:
1. It signifies a positive attitude
– The smiley resembles a facial expression. People use this after their signature to underline their cheerful and positive personality: “Bye, Nura:)”. Do you see? You immediately imagine me smiling.
2. They are used as joke or irony markers
– In this case, an emoticon is used to put a certain utterance in a humoristic frame context. “I dropped my coffee again:-)” is more funny with the smiley than without.
3. Emoticons are used as hedges.
– Here smileys are used in two ways. First, as a strengthener with thanks, greetings, wishes, promises and appraisals. “Thanks” can be upgraded to a stronger expression when a smiley is used: “Thanks:-)”. Second, emoticons are used as a softener following a directive. With a request, correction, complaint or rejection, an emoticon works exactly the opposite way. “No, I don’t like that :)” comes across as a bit less harsh and direct, than without the smiley.
The smiley might be one of the most important inventions of the twentieth century for human interaction. Its integration into face-to-face communication even got as far as people yelling out “Smiley face!”. Apparently now even body language is not sufficient anymore to express emotions and needs the support of typographical exclamation.
What are your thoughts on the use of emoticons at the workplace? Do you think smileys have a big influence on the way texts are interpreted and people are being assessed?
Skovholt, K., Grønning, A., & Kankaanranta, A. (2014). The Communicative Functions of Emoticons in Workplace E-Mails: 🙂 Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication DOI: 10.1111/jcc4.12063
emoticons, professional communication, smiley, nettiquette, workplace communication, speech act theory, politeness theory