We use emojis very often – in emails, text messages and even on social media – to express joy, sadness or astonishment. But we rarely stop to think what kind of an impression we make at work when we use emoticons like the beloved smiley face.
A new Israeli study has found that a smiley is not regarded the same way as an actual smile, and can have a negative impact on the initial impression created in formal work-related emails.
“While an actual smile has a positive impact on creating an initial impression, adding a smiley can harm the person who included it in their email,” Dr. Arik Cheshin of Israel’s Haifa University, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.
In recent years, physical work meetings in offices have been replaced by email correspondence and online textual interactions. In these types of communication, it is impossible to see facial expressions. Accordingly, people often try to create a positive first impression by using emojis, and particularly the smiley.
In the latest study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, researchers Cheshin, Dr. Ella Glikson of Israel’s Ben Gurion University, and Prof. Gerben van Kleef of Amsterdam University, ran a series of four experiments to examine the impact of smileys in creating a first impression.
The participants – 549 people from 29 different countries – were asked to read work-related emails from someone they do not know. They were then asked to evaluate the competence and warmth of the person who sent the email. Some of the emails related to formal work matters, while others related to less formal aspects of work, such as an invitation to a party related to the workplace.
The participants received similar texts, some of which included smileys while others did not, and some of which included a photograph of the sender smiling while in others the sender was not smiling. In the emails that did not include the sender’s photograph, it was impossible to determine their gender.
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A photo vs. an emoji
The findings show that when a photograph was included, a smiling sender was perceived as more competent and friendly. The researchers note that this is similar to the pattern seen in face-to-face interactions. However, when emails on formal work-related matters included a smiley, the sender was perceived as less competent. The smiley did not influence the evaluation of the sender’s friendliness. In emails relating to less formal matters, the smiley led the sender to be perceived as more friendly, but did not influence the evaluation of competence.
The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to emails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the email did not include a smiley.
Emoticons are perceived as feminine
Then, the researchers sought to examine whether the inclusion of smileys influenced the perceived gender of the senders of the emails. They found that recipients were more likely to assume that the email was sent by a woman if it included a smiley, though this did not influence the evaluation of competence or friendliness.
“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. 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,” the researchers concluded.