Emoticons are meant to convey emotion over the web, but using them is a two-way street; when you throw a smiley into an email, you have to consider how it might be read, and not just how you meant it. In fact, according to a new study, emoticons in workplace email aren’t really meant to convey your emotions at all. They serve as juiced-up punctuation, indicating what tone your message is supposed to take. A happy emoticon doesn’t mean you’re happy, but it can mean that you want the recipient of your message to take what you’re saying as a positive thing.
But smileys have three primary meanings, according to the study published in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication: pushing a positive attitude on your recipient, marking a joke or ironic statement, and serving as a hedge—a word that strengthens or softens the impact of the message.
Throwing a smiley after your email signature, or adding it to a greeting or compliment, is simple stuff: You want the reader to feel good about what you’re saying, and they’ll get it. And sometimes adding a “:-)” or “:P” to a joke is a must in the workplace. If you make a joke about having spent the morning asleep at your desk, it’s best to make sure your boss won’t take it seriously (though on second thought, maybe you should just lay off the jokes in work email). And finally, the hedging: Softening a blow is no crime, but using a smiley qualifier on a request or criticism does sometimes border on passive-aggressive. Check your tone, and be sure that added emoticon doesn’t throw your work communication into smarm territory.