What Using a ‘Smiley’ at Work Says About You!

September 19, 2017 Richard Justenhoven
image use of smarticons

The use of emoticons in work-related communication

The smiley at the end of an email seems to have crept into some of our daily working practices – no doubt due to our use of the happy yellow emoticon in text and emails with friends and family. After all, it conveys positive feelings or the jokey intention of a comment. But what does the recipient think? Are we doing ourselves a disservice if we use these in our work communications?

It seems we are according to a study carried out by researchers from Ben-Gurion University of the Negrev (BGU), Israel, the University of Haifa, Israel and Amsterdam University, The Netherlands.

The research

The research involved 549 participants from 29 countries looking at the perceptions of face-to-face (in person) smiles, and those of ‘smileys’ delivered digitally.

Participants were asked to read a work-related email and assess the competence and warmth of the sender – and also respond to emails. Whilst the messages remained similar, some included a ‘smiley’. The participants’ perceptions of the sender were then looked at – as well as their responses to the original sender.

The results showed that:

  • Unlike in face-to-face communication where a smile is seen as a warm gesture, a smiley had no effect on the perception of warmth towards the sender.
  • The smiley-containing email had a negative impact on the perception of the sender’s competence by the recipient. The sender was seen as being less competent. In fact, this is also supported by some other research we reported on in another blog post.
  • When the sender of a smiley email was unknown, participants were more likely to assume the sender was a woman.
  • Those replying to a formal email in which a smiley had been sent, tended to send more content-related information and answer any questions in a more detailed way.

So it seems, the smiley is not a virtual smile when it comes to workplace communications – at least as far as initial communications are concerned – and can give the wrong impression relating to competence. It’s probably best to keep smileys for family, friends or established working relationships!


Glikson, E., Cheshin, A., van Kleef, G. A. (2017, July). The Dark Side of a Smiley, Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Retrieved from

About the Author

Richard Justenhoven

Richard Justenhoven is the product development director within Aon's Assessment Solutions. A leading organizational psychologist, Richard is an acknowledged expert in the design, implementation and evaluation of online assessments and a sought after speaker about such topics.

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