Smiley faces usually come from people who would write things like ‘hi thr. hw r u 2day?’ Right? Well, not necessarily. It turns out there are many benefits to using emoticons in business communications… in the right contexts, of course. This is what we’ve found:

When smileys are good

Scientists have found a number of good reasons to use emoticons in business communication. For instance:

• When you look at a smiley face online, the same parts of the brain are activated as when you see a real smiling face. This is great for social media and marketing because it’s so psychologically stimulating.
A US study discovered that smiley faces made email recipients like the sender more and feel that the sender liked them more. Even in work-oriented mails, the sender’s credibility wasn’t affected by the emoticons.
Studies on workplace communication have shown that when critical feedback is sent with an emoticon, the feedback is more positively received and addressed.
• Emails are often read in a negative tone. But when it comes to emoticons, studies have found that smileys help cue the reader into the intentions of the sender – minimising workplace miscommunication.

When a smiley goes bad

While these studies may be relevant in some industries (especially in the Western world), South African business is still a tad conservative. Emoticons tend to be viewed as immature and unprofessional – inappropriate for workplace communication and, for some, even annoying.

Some may even say that, despite the research, they’re still unnecessary. For instance, professional writers could argue that good writing doesn’t need to be peppered with smiley faces to communicate a positive tone. Good use of language should do that all by itself.

To smiley or not to smiley?

Use your judgement when using emoticons. Is the person you’re communicating with in a senior position? How well do you know them and what terms are you on? What industry do you work in and what’s the culture like in your organisation? If you work in a prestigious law firm, emoticons probably aren’t the norm. A youthful advertising agency? Possibly.

Another way to approach the smiley is to mirror your clients. If a customer uses one first, go ahead... sparingly. But until then, avoid them. You never know how they might be perceived.

At the end of the day, this is your career. How you communicate says a lot about who you are and that can have a tremendous impact on your professional journey.