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Here Are the Three Ways People Use Emoticons at Work

It might not be the most important type for human interaction, but the smiley certainly does make passive-aggressive work emails easier

Would you send a smiley face to your boss? Many people do, and researchers are curious—what's the appropriate use around this form of intraoffice communication? A recent study looked into how and when employees use variations of :) and :( in their work correspondence and found that there were three main reasons you might send an emoticon in an email.

First, let’s talk about the purpose of emoticons. It’s hard to express emotion on the internet. When you don’t have the tonality of someone’s voice to guide you, a simple sentence can be read happily, angrily or sarcastically. The researchers write:

We argue that the emoticons in authentic workplace e-mails do not primarily indicate writers' emotions. Rather, they provide information about how an utterance is supposed to be interpreted.

In other words, it’s not that I’m happy when writing this sentence to you, but that I want you to interpret that sentence as a happy one. Furthermore, the researchers found that people use emoticons in three main ways.

First, when following signatures, emoticons function as markers of a positive attitude.

Rose Eveleth :) 

Look at me I am smiling about sending you this email. I am so happy to be writing and hitting send. The thought of you reading this email makes me smile. 

Second, when following utterances that are intended to be interpreted as humorous, they are joke/irony markers.

In the absence of a sarcasm emoticon, the smiley can serve to indicate a joke or ironic statement. “Can’t wait for that 8 hour meeting on how to use Powerpoint :)” or “My computer won’t turn on! It’s going to be a great day! :)” 

Third, they are hedges: when following expressive speech acts (such as thanks, greetings, etc.) they function as strengtheners and when following directives (such as requests, corrections, etc.) they function as softeners.

This is for when you really want someone to do something for you. It often comes along with the passive-aggressive “Thanks!” that we all know so well. “Could you stop leaving coffee grounds all over the kitchen? :) Thanks!” 

According to Nura Rutten at United Academics, these three functions are crucial for all of society to function:

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.

Most important inventions for human interaction might be a bold claim, but the smiley certain does make passive-aggressive work emails easier.

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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