Using a cheerful emoticon may seem like a great way to appear friendlier in work emails, but according to a new study, that ”:)” tacked on to the end of your request leaves more of a negative impression than a positive one.
Research published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that sending a smiley-face emoticon in a business message decreased perceptions of competence. And it also didn’t increase the perception of the sender’s warmth or friendliness, which is arguably a big reason why the emoticon gets used in the first place.
The results put a big spotlight on your perceived effectiveness and likability at work. Not only does digital diction matter in business correspondence, but the study authors say it could influence whether or not people trust you with information and may even reveal a slight gender bias.
How the study worked
Study authors conducted multiple experiments with more than 500 participants across 29 countries to reach their conclusion.
In the first test, participants were shown a work-related email from an unknown sender. Some participants read emails that contained smiley faces and others did not, but the basic message was the same. The study volunteers were then asked to rate the warmth and competence of the sender based solely on the message contents. They were also asked to respond to the message.
The results found that, compared to a smile IRL (which the authors figured boosted perceptions of warmth and competence), emails with smiley face emoticons backfired when it came to perceived warmth and competence. The results also showed that the study participants felt less inclined to share information in their response when the sender used a smiley.
The next experiment stacked up emoticons to regular photos of the email senders. This was so the authors could test the theory that a person smiling can influence opinion on competence and friendliness or warmth. Study participants were shown a photograph of a smiling person and a neutral person. They were also shown a business email that contained a smiley emoticon.
Participants who looked at photos of smiling email senders rated them as more friendly and competent than those who looked neutral in their photos. However, when the participants read a formal work email that included an emoji, the sender was perceived as less competent, no matter who they were. (The emoticon didn’t have an effect on whether or not participants thought the sender seemed friendly.)
Perception is everything
The study authors also looked at gender. While the sex of the sender remained unknown, the researchers discovered participants assumed that a woman was sending the message if it contained a smiley face.
As an interesting aside, the gender findings of the study highlight a catch-22 women face in the workplace every day: A recent study published in the Human Resource Management Journal found that women to be considered influential at work, they must appear nice and be well-liked. Theoretically, one way to do that is through a toned-down email delivery with the use of, say, an emoticon. But, as the new study indicates, that also can backfire. (It’s important to note that the researchers didn’t study this particular phenomenon in the experiment.)
Ultimately, the results show that all employees may want to consider ditching the emojis when it comes to more formal correspondence, says study author Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel.
“People tend to assume that a smiley [emoji] 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,” Glikson said in a statement.
“For now, at least, a smiley [emoji] can only replace a smile when you already know the other person,” she continued. “In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.”
In other words? Just save the emojis for texting. 😜