Image credit: Twitter / CC BY 4.0Image credit: Twitter / CC BY 4.0With a vast catalog of emoticons available to express our moods and feelings on an array of subjects, researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) are exploring the appropriateness of using emoticons in work-related e-mails.

"Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence," explained Dr. Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at the BGU Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management. "In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile."

To reach that conclusion, researchers conducted experiments (which are detailed in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science) that required participants to read work-related emails from a person they didn’t know. Although the overall content and language of the communication was similar from e-mail to e-mail, some of the messages included smiley face emojis and some did not.

When asked to evaluate their feelings about the person’s competence and warmth based on the content of the email messages, participants reported being unaffected in terms of warmth regardless of the presence of a smiley face emoticon. However, when asked about the sender’s levels of competence, participants reported having a negative perception of the user’s competence when emoticons were used.

The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to e-mails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the e-mail did not include a smiley," says Dr. Glikson. "We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing."

Researchers also reported that when participants didn’t know the gender of the email sender, it was assumed that women were responsible for sending the messages that included smiley face emoticons. However, this association had no bearing on the perceptions of competence or warmth of the sender.

"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," Dr. Glikson says. "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."