Emoticons @ Work: :-) or :-(?

May 16, 2012 Katharina Lochner
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The Use of Emoticons

We see emoticons in almost all modern media of communications: in emails, text messages, various chat services, even in surveys! Thus it is obvious that they find their way into business communication as well, even into letters of application. But how does their usage change the way applicants are perceived by recruiters and thus their chance of being offered a job?

Lori Foster Thompson and Alexandra K. Mullins form North Carolina State University and their colleagues Jamin B. Halberstadt from the University of Otago and J. Brian Robinson from George Mason University were interested in exactly this question. In their study, they had students rate applications from men vs. women that used or did not use emoticons in their applications. They found that the use of smileys evokes feminine stereotypes like for example warmth. This can be favourable when applying for a “female” job, but is certainly detrimental when applying for a “male” job that requires dominance and confidence. As applicants who use emoticons are viewed as less professional and thus their chance of being hired is lower. It seems that men are viewed more negatively when using them than women, and this is the case especially when they are being evaluated by a man.

The study was presented at the 2012 SIOP Conference in San Diego. The study was a follow up on a study presented at the 2010 SIOP Conference in Atlanta. This study which found that the use of smileys evokes feminine stereotypes and is detrimental to applications on jobs requiring dominance and confidence is described on the SIOP homepage. The conclusion that can be drawn from both studies is that the use of emoticons in letters of application is not recommended L.

This might not be a surprising result. Use of smileys makes applicants appear unprofessional und is thus detrimental to their chances of being hired. But one of the goals of scientific research is to test whether “common knowledge” really has a basis. Sometimes beliefs are confirmed, sometimes they are not.

The paper also contains some other interesting ideas. For example, in face-to-face conversations, smiles are used as a communication tool rather than as expressions of happiness. In written correspondence, this channel of communication is not available. The use of smileys can therefore be seen as a kind of substitute for this missing channel.

Furthermore, smiling is attributed more to women than to men. During face-to-face communication it denotes warmth, a female attribute. Again, in written communication, the smiley can be seen as a substitute for the smile and thus leads to be perceived more female.

Thus, the study once more draws our attention to the fact that modern ways of communicating are far from being substitutes for the “old-fashioned” face-to-face communication. The question is: what do modern means of communication have to be like in order to get as close to face-to-face communication as possible? We will keep track of the topic.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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