The next time you want to drop a smiley face emoji into a work email, it might be wise to hold back — especially if the sender is someone you haven’t met yet.
A recent, three-experiment study by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of Negev, Amsterdam University and University of Haifa revealed that unlike smiles in real life, smiley emojis lessen “perceptions of competence” and don’t elevate “perceptions of warmth.” Overall, 549 people from 29 countries took part in the research, which was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.
Citing research, the authors defined “warmth” as “traits that reflect a person’s perceived social intentions, such as trustworthiness, sincerity, kindness, and friendliness.” They defined “competence” as “traits that reflect a person’s capacity to pursue goals and intentions, such as efficacy, skill, confidence, and intelligence,” also citing research.
Sending a smiley emoji in an email might just make someone think you are less capable, which could affect the information they share with you and your working relationship, the study found.
Why you should keep your fingers off the smiley emojis
Of all the findings, here are some that stood out.
In the first study (which also featured an initial “pilot study” to gather data), participants assumed they were doing “a project” by creating a “presentation for students” looking to take class overseas, with three people from other nations.
They were randomly assigned to one of the four conditions: a picture with a smiling face, a picture with a neutral face, a message with smileys, and a message without them.
Faces with smiles made people more frequently judge them as more “warm” and able in comparison to neutral ones. But smiles in messages only made people think they were warmer by a small amount and made them think they were much less able, in comparison to a text-only message.
In the second study, people read an email message from someone they would hypothetically be working with and judged their competence and warmth. They had to write a response back and pick what they thought they thought the sender’s gender was.
Smiley emojis were found to have a bad impact on how the participants judged ability and none on warmth. In “the smiley condition,” participants thought the sender was a woman more often than a man, but it didn’t have an impact on what people thought of them.
Formality played a role in the third study. Participants read an email message hypothetically sent by a new hire to an administrative assistant who did not know the employee. The message was a query “about a staff meeting (formal condition) or a social gathering (informal condition).” The study adds that the email featured two smileys or none at all. Participants judged the person’s warmth and ability, and how fitting the message was.
The researchers found that smileys worked against the judgment of ability and didn’t influence how warm participants thought the sender was under the formal condition. But under informal terms, the sender was seen as more warm and what people thought about the person’s ability was not affected, although the research adds that “these effects were partially mediated by perceptions of (in)appropriateness.”
Why your relationship to the sender is important
No matter who you are, you might not want to include a smiley in a work email to someone you haven’t met — depending on the nature of the interaction.
Dr. Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at BGU’s Department of Management in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, commented on the findings in a statement:
People tend to assume that a smiley 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…For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.
Keep this in mind for your next work email
It’s clear the rules of emoji etiquette are still being formed. In another study, smiley-face emojis were reportedly “found to be largely acceptable by respondents.” The same research says to steer clear of emojis with hearts, memes, and typos.
When in doubt about how to write an email message clearly and effectively, model it after Steve Jobs– he was known to use a simple layout, no “filler words,” and include one clear purpose.
Or take a page out of the smiley emoji study, which says: “a smiley is not a smile.”