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Celebrating Emoticons–No, Not Me

I admit it here for anyone to read: I am not a fan of emoticons. You will not catch me using a πŸ™‚ or a πŸ˜‰ or a (:0) .

Except for the sentence I just typed, I will never make you turn your head sideways to read my feelings.

Today is the silver anniversary–25 years–of the birth of the sideways smiley face emoticon (the first one I used above). According to an Associated Press news story today by Daniel Lovering, that emoticon was introduced on an electronic bulletin board by Carnegie Mellon professor Scott E. Fahlman on September 19, 1982.

In Lovering’s article he wrote, “Language experts say the smiley face and other emotional icons, known as emoticons, have given people a concise way . . . to express sentiments that otherwise would be difficult to detect.”

Difficult to detect? Why? What is wrong with using clear, concise words?

Rather than emoticons, these are my choices to express a range of sentiments:

  • I am glad.
  • I am happy.
  • I’m excited.
  • I’m so pleased.
  • I am proud.
  • Terrific news!
  • Brilliant idea!
  • I agree completely.
  • You are wonderful.
  • You are the best.
  • Thanks so much!
  • I’m kidding.
  • I’m joking.
  • I’m being silly.
  • How frustrating!
  • What a pain!
  • I hated it.
  • I am so angry I could spit.
  • It stank.
  • I was very disappointed.
  • I was devastated.
  • I am sad about it.
  • I’m stressed out.
  • I’m satisfied.
  • I’m anxious.
  • I’m nervous.
  • How embarrassing!
  • I am being sarcastic.
  • I am serious.
  • I mean it.
  • I’m beat.
  • I’m sleepy.
  • I’m exhausted.
  • I’m overwhelmed.
  • I’m bored.
  • I like it.
  • I love it.
  • I love it!

Were all of those clear? Yes.

Is a frowning emoticon clear? No.

Today I led an Email Intelligence seminar. Desiree, a participant who is just about as old as the emoticon, told the class about her goal. She said something like this:

I want to be able to use words to express emotions. The people in my circle, people around my age, use emoticons all the time. In email and text messages, we always use emoticons. But older people don’t. I want to sound professional, so I want to learn how to use the right words.

Rather than celebrating the emoticon, I want to celebrate Desiree–in words, of course. Desiree, what a brilliant idea! I agree completely. You’re terrific!

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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 “Celebrating Emoticons–No, Not Me”

  • Lynn, you know how much I admire your blog. I depend on it often as a resource for mine.

    But I disagree with you about emoticons. Throughout its history, our language has added punctuation marks to clarify the tone of words or phrases. I’m sure that when the question mark started to be used in around the 9th century–or the exclamation point around the 15th–some writers complained that they weren’t necessary, that words alone were enough to convey their meaning.

    But most readers and writers found such marks useful, and so they became part of written English. You quite sensibly used (by my count) four question marks and eight exclamation points in your posting. Yes, you could have conveyed the same meaning in words alone, but the punctuation marks helped.

    I caution my students and trainees that there are many situations in which emoticons shouldn’t be used. But I also tell them that they’re seeing the birth of new punctuation marks before their very eyes–punctuation marks that convey subtleties beyond what earlier punctuation marks can.

  • Kenneth, thank you for this wonderful argument. I appreciated your comparing emoticons to punctuation.

    What I don’t get yet is how emoticons can convey subtleties. Would you provide an example please? The emoticons I have “read” have frequently left me scratching my head.

    One research study showed that emoticons do nothing to aid in the correct interpretation of a message. I link to the study here: (Even if the entire address does not appear, it should work.)

    Please share your further thoughts.


  • Lynn, I appreciate your thoughts on emoticons.

    I strongly dislike emoticons, just as I dislike smiley faces after a signature or a heart shape substituted for the O in the word love.

    My older daughter (8) has just taught her younger sister (6) to use emoticons. How cuuuuuute!

    I have no desire to say, “How cute!” when one of my employees sends an email, especially when I receive a winking, straight-mouthed emoticon. What does that mean?

    It is my wish to receive clear and professional communications at all times.

    Like most managers, I always hire or promote the most professional, mature, skilled person. Use of emoticons is a tip that a person may not be the most business savvy or mature. Why take the chance?

    Lynn, thank you for being the voice of reason.

    Best wishes,

  • Darcy, your comment reminded me of the senior manager who told me about an internal applicant she was considering for a job. She planned to invite him in for a second interview, but when she received his thank you email–with an animated smiley face–she changed her mind. He didn’t have the professionalism the job required.

    Thanks for commenting.


  • Lynn, thanks for your kind words: You asked me, “What I don’t get yet is how emoticons can convey subtleties. Would you provide an example please?”

    That’s a great question, and a hard one to answer. Because “subtleties” are, by definition, subtle, they’re difficult to explain outside of the actual communication situation–a situation involving the knowledge and feelings of a specific writer and specific reader at a specific time. But let me try.

    A company for whom I do some contract training has fairly complicated procedures for invoicing and for having materials printed. I’ve screwed up several times and felt guilty about doing so. I’m sure I’ve unconsciously conveyed that feeling of guilt in some of my communications.

    Last month I received two messages with emoticons from one of my contact people in the organization. Here are “sanitized” excerpts:

    * Please note that John is able to raise your training materials allotment amount with Materials Supplier when you need it to avoid future “insufficient funds” situations. Just give him a call or send him an email, he is happy to help πŸ˜‰

    * I have a small favor to ask of you. : ) Would you mind please updating the Trainer invoice template you have with your proper Supplier ID # of: XXXX-E (not XXXX-3) … This helps us much in the research time on each invoice.

    I may be revealing too much about my own insecurity, but in each message the emoticon helped me to gauge more accurately (I think) the feelings of the writer and to feel more secure in my relationship with the company. Yes, she could have phoned me (though she would still have needed to write, as well), and yes, she could, perhaps, have conveyed her tone in words alone. But the emoticons were an efficient and effective way to convey a tone she correctly thought I needed to hear.

    Ken Davis

  • Ken, thanks for your examples. I thought the positive sentiments came across without the emoticons, but I can understand how they made you feel better. To me, the emoticons communicated a bit of informality, which might have helped you feel more accepted.

    I myself sent a message where–had I been an emoticon user–I might have inserted one. Here is the situation:

    I was sending an email to let someone know that I was not going to phone her to ask for advice, even though I had requested the phone meeting earlier. I wrote, “Thanks for your willingness to talk. I decided to email you and not disturb your writing.” Then I thought “not disturb your writing” might sound abrupt, and I asked myself, “Is this where people insert smiley faces?” Instead of using one, I inserted the words “which I hope is going beautifully” (referring to her writing). I believe that phrase accomplished my goal of softening the sentence, but I suppose another person might have accomplished the same goal with an emoticon.

    I haven’t changed my mind. I’m just seeing the other side. (Would this be the perfect place for an emoticon? Not from me–not a chance!)


  • Lynn, as an appreciative reader of your e-mails, blog postings, and other writing, I consider you to be a master of expression. You always convey your kind and gracious intentions so well using words, I agree that use of emoticons would only detract. Would that other writers were as articulate. And if they took the time to search for the right words, perhaps they could be.

  • Lynn, I have read with interest both your post and the comments which followed. I have made any number of blunders with emails which emoticons would not have helped and which better writing would have. Yet, emoticons persist. Maybe I’m too old to appreciate them. Thank you for this starting this thoughtful dialogue.

  • This is a rather old post but I just had to comment. I have a team leader who uses :o) all of the time… every single e-mail I have received from her. It loses it’s meaning if you over use and can often come of as condescending when used during a e-mail discussion of disagreement. Now that I have worked with this woman for two years I have banned the use of any and all emoticons from my correspondance (except for the one above)…. implied smiley face!

  • Heather, thanks for commenting. I hope people who use the same emoticon over and over will see what you have written.

    TITLE: Smiley Emoticon 25 Years Old – Business Writing Legend or Curse?
    BLOG NAME: SmallBizMentor
    DATE: 10/23/2007 05:53:44 AM
    I just found out I missed the birthday of an email business writing legend… the smiley face emoticon. Yes, thats right, the ubiquitous smiley emoticon πŸ™‚ is 25 years old. Wow! Its hard to believe its has been around for…
    TITLE: Emoticons, continued
    BLOG NAME: Manage Your Writing
    DATE: 09/21/2007 06:07:40 AM
    In a posting on Wednesday, I joined the celebration of the 25th birthday of emoticons, the little faces ( :-), for example) that some writers add to e-mail to help convey a tone of voice. I then discovered a post

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