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When do emoticons have a place in the business world?

by Nigel Hollis | January 03, 2012

Does the use of emoticons in business correspondence really indicate “the degradation of writing skills—grammar, syntax, sentence structure, even penmanship—that come with digital technology?” That’s the opinion of Bill Lancaster, a lecturer in communications at Northeastern University in Boston, quoted in this New York Times article.  

Personally, I doubt it. But I would say that, wouldn’t I? Yes, I have been known to use the smiley face in correspondence with colleagues. I think it helps reinforce the fact that you are not being serious. Particularly when corresponding with someone whose native language is not English, anything that helps reinforce your meaning is helpful. It is all too easy for subtle nuance to get lost and change the meaning of what you are trying to say.

A recent case in point would be an e-mail I received from a European colleague who stated that they had “doubts” about a specific methodology. “Uh oh,” I thought to myself, “this sounds like a problem.”

Because to my mind, doubts imply misgivings, concerns or suspicions. To me, the word has a negative undertone. But in reality, I believe what they were saying was that they had questions about how best to use the methodology in a specific context. It was an inquiry, not a concern.

So to me, the use of an emoticon in an e-mail or instant message (IM) is just a shortcut, a way of clarifying quickly and effectively, my tone of voice. Yes, Bill Lancaster is completely correct that:

…language, used properly, is clear on its own. 

But in the pressure of day-to-day business, who has time to check the grammar of every message sent?

That said, however, e-mails are just one form of business communication. Should the language used in presentations be well crafted to ensure clarity? Absolutely. I believe it casts doubt on the quality of our work to find unclear statements, misused words and incorrect spelling in a document (isn’t that what spell check is for?).

And what about questionnaires? Absolutely. We need to ensure clarity when we ask questions. If nothing else, it is worth taking a few minutes out to read a new question to a couple of colleagues and see if they understand it as you intend. And, of course, it is mission critical when conducting research across borders to ensure that questions will be understood correctly in each language. We often use word choices to identify personalities and feelings in questionnaires, but without careful translation and pilot testing by the destination country, it is all too easy to introduce an unforeseen bias.

So, you might ask, should we use emoticons in questionnaires? To which my answer is no. I believe a smiley face is commonly understood across the world, but many emoticons are not. Similarly, I have never understood the desire to use photographs or drawings of people’s expressions to illustrate questions about emotion. Apart from the seven expressions validated to apply across cultures, they are all too open to misinterpretation in one language, never mind across borders.

Besides, those seven expressions mostly indicate strong negative emotions, and people know when they feel disgust, anger or fear. In a questionnaire, we are usually interested in more subtle responses that are open to misinterpretation based on facial expression alone. How many times have you looked at a loved one and been forced to ask, “How do you feel?” because you cannot interpret their expression?

This is why research companies that use expressions to elicit emotions also use words to accompany each image. They cannot rely on the expression alone for accurate discrimination. Apart from the marketing value of using images they might as well stick to words alone.

So what do you think? Do emoticons have a role in the business world? And what about market research? Please share your thoughts.


Leave a comment
  1. Nigel, January 12, 2012
    Thanks for the comments everyone.
    Chris, I agree pictures are one way to liven up a presentation but I think the jury is still out on whether it really helps get better results. Most respondents would probably be far more appreciative of a couple of pithily worded questions than being asked to look at multiple images. I know I would prefer brevity over looks in a survey. Wouldn't you?
  2. Punlert N, January 05, 2012
    It depends on whom we use it to. I think it is useful for the research project conducted among children. The smiley/frown face or the thumbs up/down icon on the show card that make them feel like engaging in some sort of games rather than making them feel that they are rating the branding score for some products.
  3. Chris, January 05, 2012
    There can be a lot of misunderstanding in email and text communication - and emoticons are one way of clearing that confusion.

    I don't think we need to limit ourselves to just text. Afterall, long, boring text-only surveys got us to the trouble we're in today as an industry.

    I got asked just today by a marketing manager how do researchers "make surveys more enjoyable to get better results?". 

    Pictures (used correctly) are one way to do that. 
  4. Chris Nortje, January 04, 2012
    I believe they can be used within emails or IM messages, be it within company or to specific clients to help grow a feeling of both non seriousness and also closeness. It shows tone and gives hints to emotions felt. 

    However in a presentation where people whom you do not know might read or view it, there is no place there for them.
  5. Mark Jason, January 03, 2012
    Thank you for sharing such an interesting article. I agree with you that emoticons are not professional enough to use in a business setting. In general, using emoticons is not professional. But I feel it depends on the business setting/environment, emoticons can be used effectively. They can help reduce misunderstanding between people.
  6. phil herr, January 03, 2012
    Yes, emoticons do have a valid role in a business context. I send and receive close to 100 e-mails per day. Most of those are to or from people I work with on an ongoing basis (usually inside the company, but in some instances clients with whom I have a long-standing relationship). And for these exchanges, I see no harm in emoticons. I see them as augmenting my message, particularly where I don't have the time to "write a short letter" (refer to Mark Twian on that). Beyond that, in formal letters, memos, reports, there is no role for them.

    Happy New Year
  7. shirley acreman, January 03, 2012
    I am scowling as I read this!! 

    Apparently it's what I do when I'm concentrating.

    Nice article Nigel.  Happy New Year.

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