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What You Need to Know about Emoticons in E-mail

I once attended an e-mail etiquette roundtable in which the moderator made this blanket statement: "Never, ever use emoticons in business e-mail." Big, bold words.

And they're completely wrong.

The fact of the matter is that there is indeed a time and a place for emoticons in business correspondence. While I wouldn't recommend using them routinely, emoticons come in handy for a few specific applications:

  • When you are trying to congratulate someone. Did a co-worker get a 5-year award? Productivity bonus? Sales trophy? Throw in a smiley face.
  • To indicate sarcasm. That said, think very carefully before adding much sarcasm to your e-mail, since even with a smiley it can be taken the wrong way.
  • To take the edge off criticism. Coaching someone? Giving some unsolicited advice? It might be a good idea to temper the comment with an emoticon to seem somewhat less confrontational.
Emoticons come to mind because these contentious little symbols were recently celebrated on NPR. Scott Fahlman, a research professor at Carnegie Mellon, invented the emoticon as a reaction to a humorless system administrator, who was worried that a joke posted to a bulletin board might be taken out of context. Read the entire interview for the full scoop. :-)