Emoticons: the good, the bad and the fugly

Emoticons: the good, the bad and the fugly

Smiley faces usually come from squeaky, happy people who write things like ‘hi thr. hw r u 2day?’ and hug you even if they don’t know you.


Well, no.

Turns out, there are some tangible, real-world benefits to using emoticons in business communication, provided that you correctly pick your context.

The good

  • When a reader sees a smiley face on-screen, the same parts of the brain are activated as when they see a real human smile. This is incredibly useful for social media and marketing, because it’s so psychologically stimulating.
  • A US study discovered that smiley faces make email recipients like the sender more – and feel that the sender likes them more. Even in work-oriented emails, the sender’s credibility tends not to be affected by moderate emoticon use.
  • Studies on workplace communication have shown that when critical feedback is sent with an emoticon, the feedback is more positively received.
  • Emails can sometimes be (mis)read in a negative tone. But studies have found that emoticons can help cue the reader into the intentions or emotions of the sender – significantly minimising workplace miscommunication.

The bad

We’re hoping we don’t need to say this, but don’t use more than one (or at most two) emoticons per email. Just like exclamation marks, they can undermine you.

What’s more, don’t get lazy and allow smileys to do all the work. Many business writers warn that good writing shouldn’t need emoticons to communicate a positive tone. Ideally, your use of language, vocab and phrasing does that all by itself.

The fugly

No poo emojis, eggplants and peaches (if you don’t know the connotations, we’re certainly not going to tell you), middle fingers, or vomiting faces. Ever. Got it?


Bottom line: Use your better judgement when it comes to emoticons. Ask yourself:

  • Is the person I’m communicating with in a senior position?
  • How well do I knzow them and what sort of terms are we on?
  • What industry do I work in?
  • What’s the culture like in my organisation?
  • What does this reader usually use in communicating with me? (Another way to approach emoticons is to mirror your clients. If they use one first, go ahead.)