Emoticons in business: ☺ or ☹ ?
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Emoticons in business: ☺ or ☹ ?

You’re about to see me do something I’ve never done before:)

There, I did it. For the first time, I’ve used an emoticon. Rather than employ vocabulary and syntax to convey I’m feeling pleasant, I’ve instead resorted to an electronic symbol. I can see why people do it. It’s a lot faster and easier than the effort required to select the right words and put them in the right order. But what about the business world? Is the use of emoticons unprofessional?

Emoticons in business are controversial.

Emoticons in business are controversial.

You most frequently see emoticons in emails and text messages, more often than not as a way of avoiding misinterpretation. Take the following as an example.

If I were to send you an email or a text that said “I need to speak to you about something urgent and important”, you’d be excused for thinking it was going to be a negative conversation. And if I happened to be your boss, you might even think we were going to have a serious review of your performance. But if I had inserted a smiley face at the end of the sentence, you probably wouldn’t have worried.

Of course, people like me who view emoticons as an assault on the English language would rather invest an extra 10 minutes adding a sentence or two that reassures the recipient that nothing’s the matter. But I suspect we’re a pretentious and pedantic minority.

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And it’s for that reason – the trend of people embracing emoticons at an ever-expanding rate – that empirical research on the phenomenon is necessary, albeit rare. So rare, in fact, that a set of findings due to be published soon in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour appears to be the first to analyse it from the perspective of customer service.

The use of emoticons is expanding quickly.

The use of emoticons is expanding quickly.

Photo: Glenn Hunt.

The researchers ran a series of four studies. Each one compared people who used emoticons to those who didn’t based on two factors: warmth and competence.

The first study of 118 people found emoticon users were perceived to be warmer, usually seen as friendly and helpful. But they were also perceived at the same time as less competent, as though they possessed inferior levels of capability and effectiveness. In other words, lovely but dumb.

The second study, this time of 300 customers, replicated those results but added another dimension. Some customers were identified as “communal”, which means they generally view commercial interactions in a sociable manner, while others were classified as “exchange”, which means they view these same interactions in a transactional manner.

You can no doubt predict the communal types reported having a more favourable customer service experience when emoticons were used. I suppose it made them feel warm and fuzzy. The exchange people, however, were most satisfied when there was an absence of these symbols, preferring instead to keep matters businesslike.

More than 500 participants were involved in the third study, which analysed a negative customer service experience. The interesting outcome was that it didn’t matter if the customer was a touchy-feely kind of person or a matter-of-fact type of person. In both cases, the absence of emoticons was viewed favourably by all. So basically, when things aren’t going well, everyone just wants their problem fixed and to hell with the emoticons.

The fourth and final study was the biggest. Over 900 customers had their spending tracked at a real online store. When emoticons were used, the people-loving customers spent more but the transaction-based customers spent less. A lot less. They paid an average of $12 per item when no emoticon was used. It dropped to $2 when an emoticon was present. A staggering fall of more than 80 per cent.

That’s why the scholars conclude that “the use of emoticons should be approached with caution, as they can backfire in certain situations”.

James Adonis is the author of The Motivation Hoax: A smart person’s guide to inspirational nonsense.

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