Emoticons: Love them or leave them?

We all have friends or colleagues who like to add emoticons to their tweets, emails, and Facebook updates, and at some point in time I’d bet that each of us has wondered if the emoticons are a good thing or a bad thing to use in any communication. For those of you who hate emoticons (I know you’re out there) I’m about to extol the virtues of using them.

(Full disclosure: I’ve been known to use emoticons now and again)

Read any book on good communication and you’ll come across references to “non-verbal cues”, those bits of information that are communicated non-verbally, perhaps by a look on a person’s face or the body language they are adopting. In a conversation, non-verbal cues are very useful, because they can convey information that is crucial to interpreting how a person is feeling about the conversation. For example, a person who is smiling and patting your back while saying they enjoyed a lunch meeting you just had, gives off a very different vibe than a person who is standing at a distance, arms crossed and straight-faced, even if they are saying exactly the same thing. In the first case you get the sense the person actually means they enjoyed the lunch meeting, in the second case you get the sense that the person is just trying to be nice (his non-verbal cues are betraying the insincerity of his words).

I’ve often heard people complain that they don’t like email, text messages, and the like, because they can’t get the full sense of what a people are saying in them. That is, certain non-verbal forms of communication lack the non-verbal cues that are so natural in face-to-face communication. I’ve even been told by some people that they don’t like conference calls for the same reason–they can’t see the people they’re communicating and so can’t pick up on the reaction to whatever is being said.

I today’s world the written word is becoming increasingly important. Text messages are used more often than voice calls on most mobile phones; email, instant messaging, and Facebook chats/messaging are becoming the norm; and tweets are ubiquitous (I’ve even seen them featured as tag lines on poster advertisements).

Unfortunately, short messages like those just listed don’t allow for the time and space required to convey meaning effectively through written language. Add to that the fact that most people aren’t very good writers to begin with (sorry, most people, but if you hate email because it causes misunderstandings to flourish, you’re probably not a very good writer, I’m just saying…) and you have a communicative void that needs to be filled.

Enter emoticons, which seem to fill the void left by the absence of non-verbal cues, to some extent.

Consider the following short messages:

1) Had a great time last night 🙂

2) Had a great time last night 😦

3) Had a great time last night 😉

4) Had a great time last night

If I received (1), I’d think that the person sending it had a good time last night. If I received (2) I’d think that the person was being sarcastic about having had a good time last night. If I received (3) I’d think the person expected me to be in the know about why he/she had had a good time last night, or maybe that they have something private they want to tell me about whatever happened last night. And given the very different senses that 1-3 suggest are possible for such a simple snippet of text–“Had a great time last night”–if I received (4) I wouldn’t necessarily know what to think.

This example, I think, is enough to suggest that emoticons shouldn’t be prematurely sidelined as silly, or unprofessional which I suspect is how many people consider them. In a world where tweets are considered acceptable means of communication by major news agencies, we ought to reconsider the virtue of emoticons, which have the capacity to convey a “faceload” of information in just a few keystrokes. (That’s right, I just made an efficiency argument in favour of emoticons!)

So for those of you who hate emoticons or haven’t yet used them 😮 , I think you ought to reconsider 🙂


2 thoughts on “Emoticons: Love them or leave them?

  1. Aren’t you ramming through an open door? Yes, emoticons can add an additional layer of meaning, yes, language evolves with technology, etc etc. But shouldn’t we look at a deeper level of communication, namely coues sent and received unconsciously? We can control our body language, our tone of voice (both to a degree), our written texts, and yes, the emoticons we use to add meaning. In other words, emoticons don’t enrich our subconscious communication, in my humble opinion.

    1. Hi Morphe,
      I think you're right: emoticons don't do much to enrich subconscious communication. But they have their proper, and legitimate place in our online communication 🙂

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