Why smiley face emojis are not so friendly

Researchers have found that using a smiley face emoji and similar emoticons at the office can have the opposite effect on the recipient, and make the sender seem less competent.

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Why smiley face emojis are not so friendly

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When is a smile(y), not a smile?

In the office environment it would seem.

In fact, academics warn that the smiley face emoji and similar emoticons included in work-related e-mails can have the opposite effect for the recipient.

Dr Ella Glikson, an expert in business and management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, said: “Our findings provide first-time evidence that – contrary to actual smiles – smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence.”


The study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, conducted a series of experiments involving 549 people from 29 different countries.

It found that the adverse effects of smiley use are moderated by the formality of the social context and mediated by perceptions of message appropriateness.

Emojis, a popular way to replicate non-verbal communication, are used six billion times a day and have been described as the fastest growing language in history.

The effect can be so damaging that people are advised to avoid them at work all together, especially the first time you talk to someone.

In one test, the participants were asked to read a work-related e-mail and then evaluate both the competence and warmth of the person sending it.

The participants all received similar messages but some included smileys while others did not.

Unlike face-to-face smiles, the smileys in an e-mail had no effect on the perception of warmth, and in fact had a negative effect on the perception of competence, the study concluded.

Dr. Glikson said “The study also 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.”

“We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing,”

In contrast, in the case of a photograph, a smiling person was seen as more competent and friendly than a person with a neutral one.

When the gender of the e-mail writer was unknown, recipients were more likely to assume that the e-mail was sent by a woman if it included a smiley.

Dr. Glikson said “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.”

Main photo credit: Flickr/Frank Behrens