To Emoji or Not to Emoji, That is the Question :-)

Emoticons in authentic workplace emails do not primarily indicate writers' emotions. Rather, they provide information about how an utterance is supposed to be interpreted. Emoticons function as contextualization cues, which serve to organize interpersonal relations in written interaction.  

Emoticons Serve Various Communicative Functions

First, when following signatures, emoticons function as markers of a positive attitude. Second, when following utterances that are intended to be interpreted as humorous, they are joke/irony markers. Third, they are hedges: when following expressive speech acts (such as thanks, greetings, etc.) they function as strengtheners and when following directives (such as requests, corrections, etc.) they function as softeners.

The word “emoticon,” a construction of the words “emotion” and “icon,” refers to graphic representations of facial expressions, which often follow utterances in written computer‐mediated communication (CMC). Emoticons may be produced by ASCII symbols (:‐)) or by “pictograms,” which are graphic symbols (). The emoticon was first used in written text in 1982 by computer scientist Scott E. Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in the United States. Fahlman suggested that the keyboard‐based “smiley” face :‐) and the “frowny” face :‐(could be used to identify jokes in a computer scientist discussion forum. The overall aim was to economize computer‐mediated interaction.

Within the last 30 years, emoticons have developed different forms and meanings, and a growing number of forms accompany different types of chat software. Still, using emoticons in CMC has traditionally been viewed as a typically teenage phenomenon. Emoticons have also been considered superfluous and a waste of bandwidth. Not surprisingly formal guidelines for computer‐mediated communication or “netiquettes” advise writers to limit their use of emoticons in workplace communication. Furthermore, such guidelines tend to be colored by the author's personal values rather than reflecting the actual use and communicative functions of emoticons. In the popular press and media, emoticons are banned by some authors.

Emoticons as a semiotic resource in email communication is used systematically to modify speech acts, and thus has developed new and more specific functions compared with those first proposed by Fahlman in 1984. The communicative functions of emoticons in a way that has not been done in previous research. Emoticons represent a multifunctional semiotic resource available to email writers, who can use them both to contextualize discourse and to organize social relationships.

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Use of Emoticons in Email

Research on the use of emoticons in email over the years has addressed various issues including the differences in usage between men and women. Most agree emoticons are graphic signs which are used to indicate an emotional state. Most assume that emoticons are used to compensate for the lack of nonverbal communication cues, such as facial expressions, intonation, gestures, and other bodily indicators, in CMC. In other words, emoticons are perceived as providing support to written communication, in the same way that visual and body language support face‐to‐face communication.

In the field of linguistics, emoticons are primarily viewed as emotion markers. Renowned linguist David Crystal defines emoticons as a “combination of keyboard characters designed to show an emotional facial expression.” Furthermore, he proposes that emoticons seem to have a “purely pragmatic force – acting as a warning to the recipient(s) that the sender is worried about the effect a sentence might have.”

The first study on emoticons was conducted in 1995 by Rezabeck and Cochenour (1995); it examined the frequency, variety, and usage patterns of emoticons in four listservs. The frequency of emoticons varied within the four listservs, and in the listserv with the highest score, every fourth message contained an emoticon. The most frequently occurring emoticon was the traditional smiley, :‐), followed by the smiley without a “nose,”:). The use of the smiley depended on individual preferences and varied according to the context.

Previous research has also been interested in differences between genders in the use of emoticons. In a study of emoticon use in online newsgroups, Women used emoticons more often than men did. This finding correlates with the previously concluded notion that women produced three times more emoticons of smiling and laughter than men. Emoticons can serve some of the same functions as nonverbal behavior. In particular, emoticons can complement and enhance the verbal message, but they are not able to contradict it.

The pragmatic function of emoticons was examined by Dresner and Herring (2010), and the examination suggests that emoticons serve two primary functions:

(1)   They function as indicators of emotion, and

(2)   they function as indicators of “nonemotional meaning, mapped conventionally onto facial expression.”

For example, the use of emoticons as indicating a joke is done by inserting a wink: ;‐). The wink is not signaling emotion; rather, it is conventionally indicating a joking intent.

In Summary

Emoticons are graphic signs which, in interplay with verbal utterances, serve different communicative functions, not necessarily limited to a show of emotion on the part of the sender but necessarily an assurance by the sender that the receiver understands the sender’s intent.

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How do you feel about emoticons in work emails?