Smileys in Work Emails Create a Bad Impression, Study Shows

Emojis in work-related emails suggest to recipients that the sender is less capable, and probably female, Israeli study in 29 countries found

An emoji character from the film "The Emoji Movie."
An emoji character from the film "The Emoji Movie." STEPHANE MAHE/REUTERS

Emojis have their place and work emails aren’t it, says a new study. With all due respect to “World Emoji Day” in July, smileys in formal emails are seen not as charming but as indicative of incompetence, even if the message was sent by the boss to the minions.

Smileys are also perceived to be the purview of women, not men, though in the real world both sexes use them liberally, said Israeli scientists in a paper “The Dark Side of a Smiley: Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions,” based on a study of 529 people in 29 countries.

In face-to-face interactions, smiling is a good thing. Is a smiley a good substitute in electronic messages? It is not.

Smiling at a person creates a good first impression. Smileys in work-related emails can create a negative first impression. That can harm the sender, says Arik Cheshin of the University of Haifa’s Department of Human Services, a co-author of the study.

If the subject matter was “light” — an employee get-together, for instance — using smileys was okay, the study found.

“When you meet somebody for the first time, face to face, smiling is normal. Is a smiley or smile by email considered equivalent? No. Really no. It does not create that perception of warmth, of friendliness. It does not achieve that, whatever we might expect,” Cheshin says.

Okay, so the recipient sees the smiley and grimaces. Why? They can’t be certain, but the research team concluded that the little yellow face is probably considered inappropriate to a work environment.

“Maybe the recipients feel it’s too casual, or too childish. That is one possibility, and we did show that this exists. A second theory, yet to be examined, involves intensity. When we smile face-to-face, our smile probably won’t be as huge as appears in a smiley, where it appears extreme, exaggerated. Too much,” Cheshin tells Haaretz, laughing.

This bears remembering in a world where first meetings may well not be in person. The initial perception may be created by email. The boss sends out an email: “Welcome to the team, Yohai! :) ”

Yochai, appalled by the smiley but figuring that emoticons are part of the corporate culture, responds by shooting an email to the boss’s office manager: “Hi, this is Yohai, the new employee. When’s the first team meeting? :) ”

Now the office manager thinks the new employee has behaved inappropriately — and all due to a silly smiley whose senders thought they were doing a good thing.

The study also found that when responding to emails on formal matters, the participants’ replies were more detailed and comprehensive when the email did not include a smiley.

As for smileys being a female thing, that’s the perception, but not the reality. Men use them too, Cheshin found based on a survey of his students, if not a formal study of hundreds of participants in 29 countries.

“I could not say that one sex used one type of emoji more,” he says.

Whoever’s using them, smileys evidently join the pantheon of contrived gestures that people love to loathe. “When you meet somebody for the first time and they smile, you don’t assume they’re being ingratiating. It appears natural. An emoticon is calculated. I have to type the smiley. Expressing feelings using text and symbols seems to be much more controlled,” says Cheshin.

Then there is the danger of misinterpretation. A grin and a handshake are hard to get wrong. An emoji can be used strategically, or taken in ways not intended.

And don’t think it’s a kid thing and that we dodderers, who can actually “read,” behave otherwise. In their samples, they found that 20-year-olds college students in Netherlands and the United States behaved just the same as 30- and 40-year-old “olds.”

One helpful hint. Want to meet and greet by email and shudder at being thought aloof or even creepy? Add a picture of your smiling self. “When a photograph of the sender was included, a smiling sender was perceived as more competent and friendly — just as though the sender and receiver were meeting in person,” said the researchers.

The study was done by Cheshin with Ella Glikson of the Faculty of Management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Prof. Gerben van Kleef of the University of Amsterdam’s Department of Psychology.

In case you were wondering, World Emoji Day has no purpose except to celebrate their existence, and they do have their place in modern society. It isn’t in work emails.