Take care when using emoticons in professional e-mails

  • Sun Oct 3rd, 2010 4:17pm
  • News

By Erich Schwartzel Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Not everyone is all 🙂 when it comes to that famous e-mail shorthand: the emoticon.

The transformation of punctuation marks into crude mini-faces has always helped readers know when you’re being sarcastic in instant-message conversations and text messages.

But you wouldn’t wink at your boss in person, so can you 😉 in an e-mail to him?

Questions like these have become a more prevalent issue since young, tech-savvy workers have entered the work force. Etiquette experts caution against using emoticons in certain professional settings.

Here’s how you can avoid becoming an emoticonvict.

To keep your keyboard emotions in check, remember that the emoticon is another aspect of professional e-mail that can completely alter a message’s tone, said Kelly Watkins, president of Expressive Concepts, a business-communications firm in New Albany, Ind.

Watkins advises clients to follow the telltale adage of standup comedians: Know your audience.

“If it’s the person who sits next to you, then an emoticon is probably fine. If it is someone you have never e-mailed before — please don’t,” she said.

Feel free to smile or frown when replying to someone who has written an emoticon to you, she said. But reckless emoticons run the risk of confusing older readers or giving a sense of unprofessionalism.

Work e-mail doesn’t have to be “so professional that it’s boring,” she said. Try being upfront with your tone and even consider adding a phrase like, “I hope this doesn’t sound nasty,” to make your perspective clear, she said.

Then again, if you’re thinking about it this much, maybe it’s best to look for an alternative.

“If you’re really concerned about your tone, unplug the keyboard and pick up the telephone,” she said.

The colon-hyphen-parenthesis sequence inspiring these questions was founded in 1982 by a researcher who had the novel idea of turning his head to the side when he looked at the screen.

Scott Fahlman, a professor in Carnegie Mellon’s Language Technologies Institute and Computer Science Department, “tossed off” the concept one day to help clarify his tone on university message-board postings.

He said recently that he never thought it would take off like it did and agrees with Watkins’ guidelines on when the use of the device is appropriate.

“I hope I never see one in a subpoena or an international treaty,” he said.