You are dashing off a quick message celebrating a colleague’s win. You are a manager who needs to speak to a member of your team about a problem. You are forwarding a joke to your Mom. What do all three of these messages have in common? If you are a female business woman, it is often a smiley face emoticon :).
Widely known as a “smiley”, the symbol was created in the 1980s by computer scientist Scott Fahlman as a way for message board users to indicate whether posts were serious or jokes.
As internet use increased, so did the use of the smiley. They are so widely used, that a 2014 study by Kelton Global found that “76 per cent of American workers admit they have used emoticons in digital communications to people in their professional life.” The same study found that 75 percent of Americans are willing to use emoticons more often, especially if they would allow them to come across as more personable, friendly or casual.
However, as a woman in the business world, it is important to realize that emoticons, especially smileys, are not always read the same way by men and women. In her study “Emotional Expression Online: Gender Differences and Emoticon Use,” Communications Researcher Alecia Wolf found that women used emoticons both more often, and differently than their male counterparts. Women were found to use emoticons to convey humour (35 percent), while men tended to employ emoticons most frequently to express sarcasm (31 percent). This means that a message a woman meant to be funny and pleasant could be read as passive aggressive or sarcastic by a man.
The fact that smileys can be read differently by different groups is one of the main reasons why Jana Seijts, a Lecturer in Management Communication at Ivey Business School coaches students to avoid their use in a business environment. “People are used to social media, and in social media, we take a lot of liberties in communication”
However, Ms. Seijts warns that in the business world it is easy for these virtual placeholders to cause confusion, especially as more emoticons are created and the meaning of existing ones change. It is also important to remember that “there are generational differences that come into play” and that not every one of your colleagues has the same knowledge of emoticons that you do. It is, therefore, essential that an email writer, especially a young female one, keep the audience of the communication in mind.
Ric Phillips, an Executive Communication Coach, agrees that the audience’s communication style is essential to keep in mind. He suggests that an emoticon is “a softener – it softens or lightens the tone of the phrase or sentence. Some people may associate that as more feminine” while others “may associate that with empathy and taking steps to have their message understood clearly, and without misunderstanding.”
Mr. Phillips suggests that if we are writing to people who know us, they can “‘hear’ our voice when they read our emails” This would suggest the emoticon could be a valuable tool for a connection that participants in the Kelton Global study were looking for.
But is it possible for emoticon use to backfire, even among people of the same generation and gender? Corporate Trainer Kaylene Mathews advises that women often take power away from their communication with smileys.“ If you’re trying to effectively communicate confidence and business savvy, does the smiley emoticon help to get that message across? It doesn’t “add” anything except possibly an apologetic ‘hope I didn’t sound too harsh’ to the message. Which can also communicate a, ‘don’t take me too seriously’ either message.”
Ms. Mathews suggests that the smiley is not a communication tool to be used lightly. “If you want to be taken seriously, you need to be serious. You don’t need to apologize for having an opinion or for making a contribution. The goal is respect, not a bunch of friends. You can be assertive and be nice about it without adding smileys to your communication.”