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Smiley Face Suggestion

In a business writing class this week, a woman made an excellent suggestion in response to the question “Are smiley faces acceptable in email?”

Before I share her fine idea, let me state that I have never included a smiley face in an email, and I probably never will. My personal view is that smiley faces are distracting, silly, and always unnecessary. To me, putting a smiley face in a business email is no different from drawing one in a business letter sent on letterhead. Can you imagine doing that?

That said, I realize that other people love using them in their email. They believe the smiling faces are friendly, warm, and reassuring. So while I find the goofy smiles (and other emoticons) simply goofy, I still like the people who use them, and I respect their efforts to create friendly business messages. I myself always try to communicate warmth and kindness in my business writing, but I use words rather than emoticons.

Note: For anyone who has been absent from the Internet for the past few years, these are emoticons (bend your head down to your left shoulder to “read” them properly):

{:-)      (:(      😉      ;-D

In writing classes, people often want a definitive answer to the question “Are smiley faces appropriate in business email?” My answer is NO, DO NOT USE THEM, but that is not what people want to hear. Often they themselves enjoy smiley faces in the messages they receive, and it makes no sense to them not to use the playful symbols.

Here is the great suggestion from the woman in class:

Don’t use a smiley face in a message to a client or customer until the person uses one in a message to you. That way you will know the person likes smiley faces too.

I like her suggestion a lot. I would even extend it beyond clients and customers to managers, CEOs, donors, citizens, patrons, and others. I would apply her suggestion to anyone you need to impress as a professional.

What do you think about smiley faces? Please share your opinions here in a comment or by email.

Keep smiling!

Other search spellings: emial, bisness, buisness, wiritng, wiring, wirting, smily,

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

10 comments on “Smiley Face Suggestion”

  • Since you asked, I find smiley faces annoying myself. But, I confess, I’ve used them before if I want to be certain that someone knows I’m making a small joke in an email. It’s so easy to create misunderstanding unintentionally. I like the suggestion to use them after someone has included one in their email to me first.

  • Greetings and thanks. I enjoyed reading and learning from this site.

    On using smiley faces: I think when you know the person you are writing to and know that he or she enjoys “some warmth” and humor, it’s totally okay to use a simple face somewhere in your email like this 🙂
    but only in the email, because other letters can be passed on to number of people at the client site. They might think that you are not serious enough when they see your “smile”. I do use a face from time to time in some of my emails but not with clients that I just started work with.

  • I agree with your established “rule” about not including them unless you get one first in a business email. However, I enjoy using them in informal emails because they convey emotion (hence the name) where email fails to do that. At times written email can, unfortunately, convey messages other than what we intended. I once engaged in an intense argument with a friend – only she was joking! The argument was abruptly resolved when she called me laughing – a final message from me had made her wonder whether we were on the same page.

    With that said, a simple 😉 or 🙂 is acceptable. I shy away from bouncing, animated smileys – you know the ones – that link through HTML tags. They are definitely distracting and annoying and never appropriate for business.

  • Suzanne and Heather, thanks very much for your opinions. Another aspect of this question is that many people still read their email in plain text. If we include HTML smiley faces for plain text readers, they will not see what we intended and may see something that doesn’t make sense. So much for warming up the communication!

  • I use smiley faces occasionally in internal e-mail messages to clarify and add warmth to the tone. In our company we have typically have great longevity of employment, and the strength of my relationships with other employees simply helps get my job done efficiently and well. While I don’t rely on emoticons, I use them now and then when writing a co-worker because I think they confirm my friendly tone in case there is any question of it. 🙂 My use of it just now is meant to say, “I’m not cranky about this point.”

  • Wow! Can a smiley face really say “I’m not cranky about this point”? In any case, most people who have talked with me about this subject have agreed with you, Margaret. Although I am still a holdout, one day I may just need to learn how to make emoticons.

  • Simply said, in a business environment, when discussing a difficult issue via email, the emoticon conveys that while you may be looking for resolution to the issue, you are not seriously upset about the issue. A great example is a reminder to an employee that they’ve forgotten to do something. You send them the reminder to get resolution. You include the smiley face to let them know you are not at all upset about their forgetfulness. Without the smiley face or some additional wording that may be awkward, they might think that you are upset about their forgetfulness. The smiley face makes it clear in a very concise manner. Thoughts? :o)

  • Hi, Tony. This is a fine illustration of the right place for smiley faces. Although I am not yet going to use them, given my preference for words, I can see their value in situations like the one you described.

    Thanks for joining the conversation.


  • I believe that the smiley face can mean too many things; it honestly is easier and more straightforward to just say what one means.

    A smiley could mean:
    – That the writer wants resolution on a point but is not upset,
    – That a phrase was meant to be humorous,
    – An expression of warmth and candor,
    – A clue that something is meant to be a sarcastic or ironic remark,
    – A magnification of an emotion expressed in the sentence, or
    – A mark to indicate that a phrase is something for one to ponder or think about.

    To me, this is becoming too much for one poor smiley face to do. Plus, I think the ubiquitous use of smiley faces is gradually diminishing the quality of business writing on the whole. People are not learning to say what they mean, but using the smiley face as an excuse. Younger people, including high school and college students, are really using smiley faces to an extreme. I open several emails per day with smiley faces; frankly, I miss real, heartier conversations, with actual words.

    I think smileys belong only:
    – In very casual conversations, such as instant messages or “love notes” between partners/friends,
    – In salutations to indicate a smile on greeting the reader, and
    – In concluding remarks to indicate a smile or hug upon taking leave of the reader.

    Just my humble opinion.

  • John, thanks for your interesting opinions. I agree with you in many respects.

    Your recommendation for “smileys” in greetings and closes surprised me. You seem to be adding opportunities for the emoticons to be used. I rarely see smileys in those places now, but I see them everywhere else in messages.

    When someone says “Hi, Lynn” or “Dear Lynn,” I can see their smile. And when they say, “See you soon!” I feel their warmth. I do not need a smiley face in those places.

    I am glad you commented.


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