If you’re old enough to remember the first time you saw smiley faces appearing in work-related memos, you may recall—as I do—vowing to never use one. At best, it looked silly and immature; at worst, passive-aggressive and condescending—especially when attached to a request or gentle reprimand. Punctuating one’s message also seemed like a toxic choice for women, the typographic equivalent to smiling at someone’s request.
But the smiley faces, needless to say, had staying power. Now, 76% of Americans say that emoji have become part of the lexicon in their professional communication. And in offices where they’re the norm, to never use them would essentially label you a sociopath.
A new study suggests there is reason to be weary of the smiley in your office email, however: Those grinning faces do not make you seem warmer, but they do make you look less competent.
In the paper, “The Dark Side of a Smiley: Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions,” lead author Ella Glikson, a postdoctoral fellow studying organizational psychology at Ben-Gurion University (BGU) in Israel, explains that smileys can undermine your professionalism. “People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial encounters are concerned, this is incorrect,” she said in a news release about the research. “For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person,” she added. “In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.”
Glickson, who partnered with colleagues at University of Haifa and the University of the Netherlands, came to this conclusion following a series of experiments involving more than 500 subjects from 29 countries.
Participants read work-related email—some doctored with a smileys, some not—from unknown senders and rated the sender’s competence and warmth. The digital smiley was not perceived as a sign that the sender was sending good vibes, and instead made the subjects questions the sender’s abilities. The researchers also analyzed a trove of work email messages and found that those that did not include a smiley face also contained more details and more information that needed to be shared.
Notably, when the gender of the sender was unknown and the message contained a smiley, the study participants were more likely to assume that the email was sent by a woman.
Women have been found to use emojis more often than men. Jenny Davis, a social psychologist and professor at The Australian National University, told Quartz reporter Leah Fessler that “Emoji and exclamation points are the textual versions of body language… The nods, smiles, and tacked-on giggles that women have long-employed in face-to-face conversation.”
Typically, women want to make room for other people’s emotions and be affectionate when they communicate, she explained, but between friends, the emoji can also be used ironically. At work, they’ve become an economical way to telegraph tone on instant messaging platforms like Slack.
Finally, be aware that not all emojis are read the same way across cultures. In China, for instance, because grinning faces come with different smile types and varied overall facial expressions, they’ve come to be unofficially categorized as more or less genuine. Using the standard, close-mouthed smiley with unexpressive eyes could do some serious damage, connoting “a despising, mocking, and even obnoxious attitude.”