Email Communication Emotions

Many email administrators and users alike cringe when they receive email messages with emoticons. Most email etiquette and protocols call for avoiding unnecessary files, images, graphics and HTML. Placing a smiley in the context of your email basically violates all of these best practices and, in the eyes of many, just looks extremely unprofessional.

However research done by a school in Florida may have some of us changing our minds about using smiley faces and winking graphics when we send out emails.

According to Erin Richard, an associate professor of industrial and organizational at Florida Institute of Technology, business emails often lead to miscommunication.

“Businesses are expanding globally, and more and more employees are working from home, so electronic messaging has become critical for conducting business,” Richard said. “The topic is intriguing because we can all relate to the difficulty of communicating our emotions over email. Nonverbal cues that we can depend on with face-to-face communications are not there. All we have are the words, which can often lead to miscommunication.”

Miscommunication, especially via email, can lead to aggression according to Richard’s research. Her and her team found that aggression in the work place is more likely to occur via email than it is in a face-to-face situation, something that can be attributed to non-verbal cues used when communicating in person, or even on the phone.

What makes things more troublesome is that a response to an aggressive email can easily have a snowball effect.

Could Emoticons Be the Answer?

Sarcasm can be an effective way to get a point across in everyday speech. However try as we may, it just doesn’t translate well in emails. The sarcasm is lost and the comment comes across as negative or aggressive. Using emoticons may help relate the emotions that go along with statements made in an email message to curb miscommunication and negative responses.

According to Judith Kallos of Business Email Etiquette, there are appropriate times in which emoticons, or smileys, can be acceptable.

When congratulating a contact on an accomplishment or personal event they have shared with you, a short email response is often considered curt. Adding a smiley to your email reinforces that your happiness for their good news is genuine by providing a visual cue.

When you want to make sure that the recipient of your email doesn’t take your last comment verbatim or too seriously.

When using sarcasm, this is an instance where having a winky-smiley after a comment gives the other side a clue that you are kidding or poking fun. Without the use of an emoticon they may very well take that comment seriously and that is where trouble can easily start to brew.

Using Common Sense Instead of Emoticons

The safest answer to how a company can reduce miscommunication in email messages it to state that employees should be trained on proper email protocols and email etiquette. Training is great but as we have all seen, users easily forget what they are taught.

So emoticons may very well be one solution to helping accurately convey the meaning behind our comments in an email. Businesses who feel that it is appropriate can encourage their use among employees. Unfortunately, not all businesses feel this way, so while using emoticons for inter-office communications may be acceptable practice, sending an email to a supplier or customer with a waving smiley may cost your company credibility – or even future business.

Instead of batting as to which solution is the best approach, it seems that simple common sense is the answer. Simply knowing who you are writing an email to, and what the situation is should dictate how you write, or answer, an email. If you are simply responding to a quick question, a short answer could be completely acceptable. If an email solicits a response that you are unclear about, by all means ask for an explanation to curb any negative feelings.

And if the situation calls for a great deal of emotion on the part of either party, maybe you should question whether or not email is the best way to convey this particular message.

Written by Jeff


  1. Graham Sanford · July 23, 2011

    Too true, I’ve seen a lot of situations around the office get overblown because the message got through but not in the right emotional context.

    This reminds me though, does anybody remember when the “sarcmark” was fighting its way into prominence as a way for people to denote in emails and instant messages that they were being sarcastic?

  2. Jean_Semkev · July 28, 2011

    For me, it depends on the context, delivery, and style of the email. You should also take into consideration the recipient of the email. If it’s a very formal email addressed to your boss, would you put a smiley face on it? Probably not.

    You should also “minimize” the use of emoticons if it’s a group message or an email addressed to several people in your office.

    I only use emoticons if it’s a follow-up or I would need an update about my previous (and unreplied) email messages.

  3. Lisa Richardson · July 31, 2011

    Even business communication these days is getting pretty informal and this is why emoticons have made their way into it. You can’t ban them because they are useful. Since they help to avoid miscommunication, they do have their place.

  4. Dan White · August 2, 2011

    For business correspondence and all formal messages, you should avoid using emoticons – even if you’re close to the recipient (even if it’s your wife, husband, brother, sister, father, etc). This is the proper email etiquette. You should act like a professional when sending business emails.

    But if you’re having an email conversation with friends – especially with a female friend 😉 – outside the line of work (and not using your corporate email account), then go ahead. Splurge yourself with all the emoticons you can imagine. It can make your communication more affectionate and interesting.

  5. Jeff Orloff · August 14, 2011

    But do you think that etiquette is changing? I certainly do. I have received many emails from other professionals and clients that contain emoticons. Its up to the corporate culture individually. I wouldn’t suggest using them until you understand how the company works though.

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