Using a smiley face emoji or similar emoticons in work-related e-mails may not create a positive impression and could actually portray low competence, a study suggests.
“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence. In formal business e-mails, a smiley is not a smile,” said Ella Glikson, a post doctorate fellow at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Israel.
Researchers conducted a series of experiments with a total of 549 participants from 29 different countries.
In one experiment, participants were asked to read a work-related e-mail from an unknown person and then evaluate both the competence and warmth of that person.
All the participants received similar messages. Some included smileys while others did not.
Researchers found that in contrast to face-to-face smiles, which increase both competence and warmth, 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 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,” Glikson said.
“We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing,” she said.
In another experiment, the use of a smiley was compared to a smiling or neutral photograph. The findings show that in case of a photograph, a smiling sender was perceived as more competent and friendly than a neutral one.
However, when an e-mail on formal work-related matters included a smiley, the sender was perceived as less competent. The smiley did not influence the evaluation of the senders friendliness, researchers said.
The team also found that 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.
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However, this attribution did not influence the evaluation of competence or friendliness.
“People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial encounters are concerned, this is incorrect,” 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,” she added.
The study was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.