Alan Klim at flickr | CC license
Source: Alan Klim at flickr | CC license

In many social situations, smiling can smooth interactions. People who smile are seen as more attractive, honest, and warm.1 Smilers are also seen as more competent, suggesting that putting on a happy face in your professional life will have the same benefits that it does in your personal life.2,3 But what about that modern smile substitute, the emoticon? People often use emoticons (digital characters that resemble facial expressions, such as the smiley :-) face) in their texts, emails and other online communications to make up for the lack of nonverbal cues, like face expressions and tone of voice. This can serve an important social function because misunderstandings are more likely to occur over email when that nonverbal information is absent.4 But do emoticons have the same effect on our impressions of people as their offline counterparts? Does a smiley in an email have the same effect as flashing a smile during a conversation with a colleague? Or are smileys seen as unprofessional and childish? New research examines the effects of emoticons on first impressions of warmth and competence in professional settings.

Ella Glikson at Ben Gurion University, and her colleagues, examined this question in a new paper just published in Social Psychological and Personality Science.5 They conducted three studies in which participants read brief messages and evaluated the author of those messages on two characteristics:

  • Warmth: Those seen as warm are perceived as honest and trustworthy and the sort of people that you could share your hopes and dreams with and confide in about your troubles.
  • Competence: Those seen as competent are perceived as more hardworking, motivated, and committed to their work.

In the first study, 206 undergraduate students from the University of Amsterdam were asked to imagine working on a project with three teammates. Each participant received a message from a teammate which included one of four different emotional presentations: A photograph of a face with a neutral expression, a photograph with a smile, a text greeting with no emoticons, or a text greeting with two smiley emoticons.

Their results showed that the person with the smiling face was perceived as warmer than the person with the neutral face or those sending the text only messages. So a real smile makes more of an impact than an emoticon. Nonetheless, the text only message containing the smileys was perceived as slightly warmer than the message that did not contain the smileys. When it came to perceptions of competence, the results were quite different. When participants were looking at photographs, the smilers were rated as more competent than the non-smilers. But for the writers of the text-only messages, the inclusion of smileys significantly reduced perceptions of competence.

The second study used an online sample of 100 adults. This time, the presence of smileys did not affect perceptions of warmth, but it significantly reduced perceptions of competence and participants’ likelihood of sharing information with the author of the message (Information sharing was measured by having participants write a reply message and counting how many words were in that message.).

Both studies consistently showed that using emoticons is likely to have minimal impact on how warm people think you are, but it has a rather significant impact on how competent you appear. But do emoticons always make people appear less competent, or might it depend on the context? To find out, the researchers conducted a third study where participants read messages from a work colleague about attending a staff meeting or a social gathering.

The results showed that, not surprisingly, participants rated the smiley-laden text as less appropriate for a work-related than a social message. Consistent with the first two studies, smileys created an impression of less competence, but had no impact on perceptions of warmth in the work-related setting. However, when the message was about a social gathering, smileys positively affected impressions of warmth and had no impact on impressions of competence. And these different effects were partially due to differences in participants’ perceptions of the appropriateness of the messages.

One reason emoticons may have a different impact than their real life counterparts is that they are a very noticeable and salient aspect of the message. People smile frequently in their offline interactions, and these smiles occur naturally. Thus, a friendly appearance may suggest a nice, friendly person, and no more. Even deliberate smiling in a company photo is likely to be seen as appropriate. On the other hand, an emoticon represents a deliberate effort to create an impression during an interaction. Presumably, when you read an email message containing a smiley, you assume the author of that email made a conscious decision to include the emoticon. And it is that conscious decision to include emoticons in a specific communication that is perceived as unprofessional.

It is also important to note that in these studies, participants were forming impressions of strangers based solely on these email messages. Occasionally, we do find ourselves in social or professional interactions that begin with a text message, email, or other online communication. But most emails and texts are part of a much larger pattern of communication between people. So while these findings can be applied to first impressions made over email or text, they really can't be extrapolated to contexts in which there is ongoing communication across a variety of situations.

This research shows that you need to think carefully about when to use emoticons. In a friendly interaction, or even a social interaction at work, they can create a positive impression. Emoticons also serve other communication purposes, as they can help you to clarify your intentions in emails and text messages. On the other hand, unlike real life smiles, emoticons can be seen as inappropriate in formal settings. So, go ahead and use those smileys for your social emails, but it’s probably safer to avoid emoticons altogether in your work communications.

Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior. Read more articles by Dr. Seidman on Close Encounters.

References

1 Belkin, L. Y., & Rothman, N. B. (2017). Do I trust you? Depends on what you feel: Interpersonal effects of emotions on initial trust at zero-acquaintance. Negotiation and Conflict Management Research, 10, 3–27.

2 Hess, U., Adams, R., Jr., & Kleck, R. (2005). Who may frown and who should smile? Dominance, affiliation, and the display of happiness and anger. Cognition & Emotion, 19, 515–536.

3 Ozono, H., Watabe, M., Yoshikawa, S., Nakashima, S., Rule, N. O., Ambady, N., & Adams, R. B. (2010). What’s in a smile? Cultural differences in the effects of smiling on judgments of trustworthiness. Letters on Evolutionary Behavioral Science, 1, 15–18.

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