The Great Emoticon Debate

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I was scrolling through Mashable when an article caught my eye: “A Brief History of the Emoticon.” Although I’m a daily emoticon user, I’ve never really stopped to think about its origin, where it came from and why.

Well, according to Mashable, the emoticon has been around for nearly 30 years, originally invented by a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist, to – you guessed it, convey emotion!

I don’t think twice about using emoticons when texting my friends or sending personal emails, but what about when it comes to emails sent in the workplace? Is it ever okay to use smiley faces in emails sent to coworkers, clients or members of the media? Where is the line drawn? I think the general consensus is: don’t use them in the work place. For obvious reasons such making you seem young, naive or unprofessional, the general advice is to correspond emoticon-free. However, just like anything, there are always exceptions to the rule, and I think nowadays this rule is becoming more lenient as many will argue there’s a time and place for that wink face ;).

Today I think the use of emoticons largely depends on personal preference; some people use them and some don’t. It also should depend on the type of relationship you have with whomever you’re corresponding. The overall vibe of you company will likely play a role in emoticon use as well. If your company tends to be smaller, tight knit, younger or laid back, the use of emoticons to convey happiness, or give gratitude or encouragement internally is not uncommon. And, this may be true for larger companies too that have a laid-back vibe. Some companies on the other hand, due to the nature of the work, will never use emoticons. However, even if your company doesn’t endorse emoticon use, it still may be completely acceptable to use them with certain coworkers with whom you are close

This takes care of emoticon use internally, but what about externally? It gets very tricky when it comes to corresponding with people outside of your office, particularly clients or members of the media. When is it okay to use a smiley face in an email to a client? What if a client is particularly happy with a result and sends an email with an emoticon? Does that give you free reign to use them? Maybe. But maybe not.

Is it acceptable to shoot a journalist an email thanking them for covering your client, complete with a smiley face? Generally speaking, it is a good idea to allow the client or journalist to set the tone and go from there. If a particular client is constantly using emoticons in emails, then sure, it’s probably okay for you to use them every once in a while. However, it’s a fine line and certainly depends on the situation.

In this business that we are in, we work with clients and media members located all over the country and often times all over the world. Because of this, many of our correspondences are not done face-to-face, but rather via email or phone. This makes it hard to gauge how a person is really feeling. Sure, you can interpret the tone of a person’s voice or email, but you don’t really know how they’re feeling without seeing their facial expression.

When it comes to email, if a client or journalist uses a smiley face, their mood is much more easily interpreted, giving way to much less guess work. So… what am I saying, we should all start using emoticons more often? Not at all. I agree that generally emoticons should be used very sparingly. However, at the same time, I believe they can be appropriately used and may even give way to a much more pleasant work day.

However, putting the emoticon discussion aside, it really comes down to this: we must make sure we are constantly doing what we do best: communicating. When dealing with clients with whom we can’t talk face to face, we have to be straightforward and ask them things like: Are you happy with the work we’ve done? How do you feel about the type of coverage we secured? What’s the general feeling over at XYZ company? Asking these questions may feel a bit awkward at first, but doing so will allow you to make any necessary adjustments sooner rather than later and will ultimately strengthen your client relationships and increase their level of :)

Contributed by Jessica Boardman. Follow her @J_Boardman