The emotion of emoticons

We communicate largely in text these days. Emails, instant messaging, text messages, Facebook statuses, Twitter updates, LinkedIn posts, the list goes on. Arguably even on image based sites, such as Pinterest and Instagram, we are communicating using objects that lack any sort of tone or context. In short, a lot of the communication we now undertake has its tone and context implied by the receiver, rather than it being given, and this can lead to some rather major problems.

Back in the 1960s, a rather clever psychologist called Professor Mehrabian did studies to look at how we communicate. He came to the conclusion that only 7% of our communication is verbal (i.e. the words we use), with 38% being tone of voice and 55% being body language. It is a work that is often misused and misquoted these days. His study was in fact quite limited but what it did prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, is that we rely on much more than just the words we use in order to create meaning and to be understood correctly. And if the large proportion of communication is therefore nothing to do with our words then this is where text based communication presents a real issue. If Professor Mehrabian is correct, then we now communicate with the majority of our friends and colleagues in a manner that is only 7% efficient in communicating our actual meaning, and the rest relies on the reader to infer. This will depend entirely on their own mood, their understanding of the words, their feelings towards the author, etc. etc. but generally speaking it is likely they won’t take quite the same meaning from it as the author had intended.

We’ve all been in the situation where we’ve written something that we thought was innocuous, most likely on social media, only to get a stream of vitriol as a response. Those responses are more reflective of the people responding than of the original message. Certainly they wouldn’t react in the same way if the conversation was being had over a pint at the pub. But in a world where more and more of our communication is in text form, how do we avoid our entire lives becoming an unintentional argument? Arise the emoticon!

Emoticons, or emotional icons, are not anything new. In 1857 The National Telegraphic Review and Operators Guide listed the number 73 in Morse code as a way to say “love and kisses”. There are countless other early examples claimed as well, including a transcript for a speech by Abraham Lincoln that included a smiley – although many think that is a typo. Scott Fahlman was the first documented user of an actual emoticon, in 1982 at Carnegie Mellon University.

An image of the first recorded usage of an emoticon

But the emoticon has really started to gain popularity since the age of text messaging. Everyone will be familiar with 🙂 🙁 😉 but now we have much more than that. Instant messaging services and modern phones give us the option to choose from a plethora of different images, and even animations, in order to express our thoughts and emotions.

An image of the emoticons on offer on an iPhone

Whilst some poor scorn on the use of these, they actually serve an important purpose. They enable us to fill the emotional void and start to give some context to our communications. When we use these we rely less on our reader to judge our mood, which they always will, as they can begin to see whether we are joking, annoyed, upset, laid back, being cheeky, etc.

Emoticons are a great way to defuse a situation quickly, when someone has clearly taken what you have said the wrong way, or to avoid it in the first place. They allow us to indicate our mood and give the reader some idea of how to read the content. It is a way to create a sort of emotional rapport without being in the same place.

They can also serve a wider purpose, in attracting attention. Whilst smileys can produce emotions, there are also a wide range of other images available, including animals. WWF’s recent campaign included these:

An image showing the emoticons used in the WWF Endangered Emojis campaign

Visualising the animals that are endangered in such a cute manner pulls at the heartstrings of readers and also catches the eye amongst a wall of text. It is a very effective way to get attention and the campaign was a great success, as well as quite controversial particularly when they changed the traditional WWF Pando logo for an Emoji.

So what does this mean for us, in our workplace? It is unlikely to become widely acceptable anytime soon to start using emoticons in emails to clients. But it is becoming more and more common to see the odd smiley face used as a way of lightening the mood between familiar people. The most significant thing for us to be aware of is how the reader’s emotions and mood will affect how they read something. This is extremely relevant when thinking about running social media marketing or emails. Make sure that the conversation is in the right tone and think about using emoticons in a useful way or even to elicit similar responses and emotions in those who are engaging. And as with the WWF campaign, judging when a more visual approach may have more impact is also key to potential success and longevity.

This understanding understanding is most relevant when working with others. When it comes to building relationships with clients, or managing expectations, it is always going to be better to pick up the phone, so that they can hear your emotions and tones, rather than guessing – especially if you are delivering bad news about a project. And if you have to email someone, consider the language used carefully in case it could be read wrongly. And as a backup, you could always flout the expected conventions and drop an emoticon or two in as well.

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