Smiley and the world might laugh at you

Adding a smiley to your e-mail helps you come off as friendly, or a little on the dumb side, according to a new study that puts a number on how many emoji you can use before people stop taking you seriously.

By Mads Matzon

To emoji or not to emoji? That is a question we’ve all asked ourselves at some point when composing a work e-mail. What if we add one, and the person we’re writing to doesn’t interpret it properly? Antonia Erz, a reader at Copenhagen Business School who recently completed research into how people interpret emoji, says your concern is well founded.

Inspired by her own e-mail correspondence with her students, Erz together with colleagues in the UK, set about looking into how students view instructors who include emoji in their e-mail.

The research involved sending one group of students e-mails without emoji and another e-mails that contained an average of two common smiley face emoji 🙂. The recipients of the emoji e-mail perceived the sender as being warmer (which for the purposes of the study was used to mean positive and friendly), but also less competent than the instructor who didn’t use any smileys.

“It should be noted, though, that the smileys had much stronger effect on how warm the sender was perceived than how competent the sender was perceived. Put another way, the positive effect outweighed the negative effect,” Erz says.

The study of 848 students found that things like the age, position or seniority of the person sending the message played no role in how the students interpreted smileys.

Not just in academia

Does the same hold true when people include emoji in e-mail sent in other situations? Erz’s research looked only at e-mail sent in an educational setting, but there is evidence to suggest that the findings might apply elsewhere, she says; research looking into the use of emoji in customer-service communication came to the same conclusion as her own study.

Even though there may be some benefit in general to using emoji, Erz recommends thinking about what field the recipient is in. In some jobs, formal communication is the norm, while others are more relaxed.

“You can’t just add smileys left and right – not unless you want people to think you are incompetent. Use them sparingly, and experiment a little to see when they are effective.”

One time they never are, Erz emphasises, is when you are writing about a serious issue.

What's my emoji quota?

A study looking at the effect emoji had on the recipient’s perception of the sender found that you should include no more than three in a single message. Any more than that and you start looking bad.

Erz used to hold off as much as possible using emoji when sending e-mail to students, but now she’s a little more relaxed about her emoji use.

“When I talk to a student face-to-face, I smile in certain situations. Maybe I want to emphasise something or show them I am offering them a bit of friendly advice. So if I am sending them an e-mail and I want to encourage them, I only makes sense that I add a smiley".

Emoji effect

Erz’s emoji study, titled “Smile(y) – and your students will smile with you?” the effects of emoticons on impressions, evaluations, and behaviour in staff-to-student communication”, was published in April in Studies in Higher Education.

Students were asked to evaluate instructors on a scale from 1 to 7 in a series of categories.

The categories used to judge warmth included: cold/warm; unpleasant/pleasant and unfriendly/friendly.

The categories used to judge competence included: incompetent/competent; unqualified/qualified and clumsy/skilful.

The history of the smiley

The rights to the smiley are owned by the Smiley Company and are worth $500 million a year.

While the smiley-face emoji as we know it dates back to 1963, history’s first known smiley was drawn on a clay pot some 4,000 years ago in what is now Turkey.

A letter written around 1900 by Nobel-prize winning author Johannes V Jensen contains what is thought to be the first smiley drawn by a Dane.

This article is published by Djøfbladet. It originally appeared in Danish online at djoefbladet.dk.