If & When to Use Emoticons in Work Emails


I smile… a lot! I’m also excitable and encouraging. But how do I reflect that gregarious part of my personality through email without being overbearing or annoying?

When it comes to emailing — whether it’s short and sweet or longer and informative — I fight the urge to add too many exclamation points and smiley faces. I feel that if you’re not sensitive in the way you represent yourself in an email, the end reader will automatically default to reading it in a defensive manner.

The question is, while I like using emoticons and seeing them in emails I receive, is it professional to use them in work emails? Where should I and others draw the line? I decided to create a SurveyMonkey survey to get a feel for the opinions of others. I sent it to all my coworkers as well as my friends on facebooks. I asked four questions and gave people the option to leave a comment. The results are as follows (click to enlarge):

I also got some very helpful comments, including:

It really depends on the context. If it’s a client/vendor who I don’t know well, I’ll use a more “professional” tone and eschew emoticons. Likewise if it’s a serious, businesslike email, even if I know the person well. But if it’s a friendly and lighthearted message, I’ll sometimes drop in a :) or two to help convey the good mood.

I like to use emoticons to break ice or tension. I feel like it’s a nice way to let people know I’m friendly. If I do use one, I try not to do more than one per e-mail.

More often than not, I make an effort to avoid emoticons in emails. There are times when I can’t find a way to phrase something in such a way that it is unambiguously interpretable, though. In those cases, I’ll sprinkle a :) just to try and suggest that the best possible interpretation was the one that was intended.

I’ve read that the “emotional bias” of email is negative, so that what sounds neutral verbally will sound more negative by default in email. Emoticons offset that natural bias to make sure that you sound “happy” when you intended to do so, even in an email. :)

Emoticons are appropriate in a personal email but not a work email. The difference being casual versus formal. A “work” email is considered a formal communication. An emoticon is no more appropriate in a formal email than wearing a bathing suit to work.

It depends on the context. Generally, I think they should be avoided except with people you have a more intimate relationship with. Also, if you can manage to convey your information and emotion without them, your words carry more weight.

Between the survey results and the comments, I came to the following conclusion: The context of your email has everything to do with whether it’s appropriate or not.

More than half of Atoms think it’s ok to use emoticons when it’s with a coworker and/or a customer you have a developed relationship with. The majority of people don’t care if you slide in a smiley face or two. Chats, messengers, conversations with friends are an absolute go ahead.

If you have to question whether or not to use an emoticon, I learned to challenge myself by expressing what I’m trying to convey by using my words, and if that doesn’t come easy, I’ll ask a coworker or friend to read it over. Professionally and with first introductions, it’s important to remember that you’re representing your company too.

I think, with moderation and by avoiding the intricate kinds of emoticons, considering context and who you’re speaking with, the use of emoticons can also be a great tool for a lighthearted conversation and a way to show you’re in a good mood. :) Bottom line, if you are to use one or many, keep it simple! Now go get your emoticon on!

  • :D says:


  • Jacque says:

    In my work setting, we build relationships with customers. In that case I think the OCCASIONAL use of emoticons is acceptable. However, I cringe when there are more than one or two, particularly when the email itself is only three to four sentences. I’ve found that sometimes people will use a smiley face to try to distract from the fact that what they’re saying doesn’t make sense or isn’t helpful. It can also come across as if you aren’t taking the situation that seriously.

    As in everything, good judgment and constraint are usually good things to keep in mind!

    • Jamie says:

      Thanks for your feedback Jacque. I think you’re right in that there’s nothing wrong with the occasional emoticon. It seems that too much of anything can be bad for you. ;)

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