Monday, August 11, 2008

Managing by Emoticon

(Adapted from the August edition of my Managing Technology e-mail newsletter for Governing...)

An online essay by Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark has made me self-conscious about my use of emoticons and exclamation points. Roy's advice: "If you want to be considered a serious writer, never, ever use emoticons in e-mail messages. The occasional exclamation point is fine." (See: The Thinking Writer's Emoticon)

A clear writing edict like that has a way of focusing attention on one's lapses. Turns out I am a serial user of winks, frowns and smiley faces, especially when trying to sand down a jagged edge in a work e-mail that otherwise might sound harsh, humorless or unsympathetic. A search of my sent mail revealed at least a dozen winks in July alone. Gag!

But an academic study, in the journal Social Science Computer Review, made me feel a bit better about my emoticon habit. A team of social and organizational psychologists in the Netherlands tested a variety of e-mail samples with 105 secondary-school students to try to gauge their perceptions of what various emoticons conveyed about the senders' motives and intentions. The findings of this 11-page (yes, 11-page) study:
"We conclude that emoticons do have a certain impact on message interpretation and that they can serve some of the same functions as actual nonverbal behavior. In terms of the known relationship between verbal and nonverbal communication, the emoticon can possibly serve the function of complementing and enhancing verbal messages."
Well that's a relief. ;-)

Here's the abstract. And for anyone who do not know, the digital smiley face was invented a little more than 25 years ago by Scott E. Fahlman, a Carnegie Mellon computer scientist.

(Image above is from's list of smiley face water towers across the country.)


Lani Obermayer said...

I admit it -- I'm a shameless user of emoticons in messages. :) But I stick with the good ol' exclamation point if the note isn't to a friend or coworker.

Steve Fox said...

Nice column, Mark :)