Why Emoticons are Underrated

Last Updated Jul 19, 2011 3:04 PM EDT

Email, for all its advantages, lends itself to miscommunication, especially if the emotions are involved. We've managed to work around this a bit, but the tactics are unloved: They consist mainly of "screaming" in all caps or using emoticons, even in business correspondence.

But how, exactly, are your emails likely to be misread? Do people think you're being more emotional than you intend, or less? Does it matter if you're the boss? Erin Richard, a professor at Florida Institute of Technology, found that people read more emotion into emails sent by male managers, but see less emotion in the same email when sent from a female manager.

Same e-mail, different response
The researchers recruited 287 undergraduate students, 70 percent of whom were working at least part-time. Each was asked to read a series of emails, with either a positive or a neutral/mildly negative tone. The signature lines on each email varied. Some emails appeared to be from male professors, some from female professors, some from female students and some from male students. In both types of email:

  • Male professors were perceived as more emotional than male students.
  • Female professors were perceived as less emotional than female students.
  • Male professors were seen as more emotional than female professors.
  • Female students were seen as more emotional than male students.
Do we need emoticons?
Richards suggests that perhaps women are seen as becoming less emotionally expressive as they rise to higher status or leadership positions, or maybe men are perceived as becoming more expressive as they move up the totem pole. That would be consistent with other research that shows that women leaders are expected to be more emotionally neutral than their male counterparts. According to Richard:
We think that it probably speaks to the different expectations for emotional displays from men versus women in the workplace... "There's some past research that suggests that, at least with anger, female leaders are perceived as less effective when they show strong emotion, whereas male leaders are given more leeway in expressing certain types of negative emotion.
An alternate explanation could be that people expect women to be effusive. When they're not, it's interpreted as a lack of emotion. Conversely, men are supposed to be less emotional than women, so any emotional display on their part is noticeable.

What does this mean for email in a work environment? Says Richard:

I think the take home message for the person writing the message is to be clear no matter who you're writing to. For example, if you're trying to convey positive feedback you should be clear that you're very happy about what the person did and be sure you're not writing just three words and expecting them to get positive emotion out of that.
How do you make sure your emails are interpreted correctly? Is it okay to use emoticons in business email?

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Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.