Ditch The Smiley Face: Study Finds Emojis Don't Work In The Office

Emojis reportedly work in email marketing. But people who use them in the office are seen as incompetent.

You can frown now, but that’s the main finding of a “The Dark Side of a Smiley,” a study by researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, in Israel. 

How can this be? Don’t we all like to see a smiling face?

Sure. But that’s in person, or in a photo, where it shows sincerity. We don’t need to see fake smileys that any fool can post.

On the contrary, smileys “do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence," states Dr. Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at the BGU Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management.

The study was covered in a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. It is based on a survey of 549 people in 29 countries.

Participants were asked to read an email from an unknown person, and to evaluate their competence and warmth. One group got emails with smileys, and another received messages without them.



Those with smileys were taken less seriously. And they did not create good feeling — for as Glikson notes, “a smiley is not a smile.”

Worse, fake smiley faces also hamper communications. 

The study 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," Glikson says.

She adds, "we found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing,"

Here’s a somewhat sexist finding: That emails with smiley faces are perceived as coming from women.

But they don’t always — men are just as likely to use them. Whatever the gender, they are not seen as displaying warmth or sincerity.

"People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile,” Glikson observes. But this is wrong, “at least as far as initial 'encounters' are concerned,” she adds.

Glikson argues that "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." 

This antipathy doesn’t carry over to photographs: A smiling photo actually helps — you will be seen viewed as more competent and friendly.

So what does this study mean to email marketers, who are threatening the world with emoji glut? In a recent Webinar, Worldata CEO Jay Schwedelson noted that emoji usage has increased by 480% in the last year, although not all emailers are sending smiley faces — some send clocks or other images.

Maybe this study could be seen as an early warning — that people are tired of false smiles.

Maybe smileys work in emails to consumers. But do they always work in B2B, where an email may be coming from a salesperson? As per the study, a smiley may not work an initial encounter.

That’s worthy of research. So is this: How about testing an emoji that looks like a boxer staring down an opponent? It might appeal to certain mentalities.  

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