A new study reveals that smiley-face emojis and similar emoticons in professional e-mails may not create a positive impression and may even affect the receiver’s willingness to share work-related information.
“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence. In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile,” said Dr. Ella Glikson, a postdoctoral fellow at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU), Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management.
For the study, researchers from BGU, the University of Haifa in Israel and Amsterdam University conducted a series of experiments with a total of 549 participants from 29 different countries.
In one experiment, the participants were asked to read a work-related e-mail from an unknown person and then evaluate both the competence and warmth of that person.
The participants all received similar messages, but some included smileys while others did not. The findings show that in contrast to face-to-face smiles, which increase the perception of both competence and warmth, the e-mail smileys had no effect on perception of warmth, and in fact had a negative effect on the perception of competence.
“The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to e-mails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the e-mail did not include a smiley,” said Glikson. “We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing,”
In another experiment, the email included only a photograph. In this case, a “smiling” sender was perceived as more competent and friendly than a neutral one. However, when an e-mail on formal work-related matters included a smiley, the sender was perceived as less competent. The smiley did not influence the evaluation of the sender’s friendliness.
The new findings also contribute to the ongoing discussion of gender in the use and interpretation of emoticons: when the gender of the e-mail writer was unknown, recipients were more likely to assume that a smiley e-mail was sent by a woman. However, this attribution did not influence the evaluation of competence or friendliness.
“People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial ‘encounters’ are concerned, this is incorrect,” said Glikson.
“For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.”
The new findings are published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.