Wipe that smile off your screen if you want to be taken seriously
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Eliminate your emojis

Wipe that smile off your screen if you want to be taken seriously

Ben-Gurion University researchers discover that including an emoji in a work email can transmit incompetence

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Screenshot from The Emoji Movie trailer.
Screenshot from The Emoji Movie trailer.

Putting a smiley in work-related emails is not a virtual replacement for a real smile and can transmit incompetence, according to a recently published study by researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

A joint project together with the University of Amsterdam found that including the small smiling icon in work emails doesn’t make recipients perceive senders as being any more friendly, but does cast doubt on how well they can do their jobs, the university said in a statement this week.

Smileys can be included in text either with a simple “:-)” or by using a range of emoji icons that are available in various programs including email editors and cellphone text messaging applications.

“In formal business emails, a smiley is not a smile,” said Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at BGU’s Department of Management in the Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, who co-authored the study together with Arik Cheshin of Haifa University and
Gerben A. van Kleef from the University of Amsterdam.

A computer screen showing emojis in the Slack program. (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)
A computer screen showing emojis in the Slack program. (Joshua Davidovich/Times of Israel)

The paper was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science on July 31 under the title “The Dark Side of a Smiley.”

“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” the researchers wrote. “Perceptions of low competence in turn undermined information sharing. ”

Experiments included 549 participants from 29 countries and the research was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research.

Illustrative image of an emoji smiley face. (Public Doman: Tango/Wikimedia)
Illustrative image of an emoji smiley face. (Public Doman: Tango/Wikimedia)

“These results indicate that a smiley is not a smile,” the researchers assessed. “In face-to-face contact, smiling individuals are perceived as warmer and as more competent than non-smiling individuals.”

Experiments included participants evaluating the competence and warmth of an unknown person based on their work-related emails. All those who participated received similar emails, some of which included smileys while others didn’t.

The researchers found that not only did the smileys not generate an increased feeling of warmth about the author, they had a negative effect on the perceived competence of the sender.

Other experiments explored the use of actual photographs of senders in their emails. Smiling senders were seen as more friendly and competent than those who had a neutral expression in their photographs, but including a smiley in a work-related email dropped the perceived competence of the sender.

“The study also found that when the participants were asked to respond to emails on formal matters, their answers were more detailed and they included more content-related information when the email did not include a smiley,” Glikson said. “We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing.”

Research also noticed that when the gender of an email sender was not known, recipients were likely to assume it came from a woman if it included a smiley.

“People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial ‘encounters’ are concerned, this is incorrect,” Glikson added.

“For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender,” she advised.

Although often associated with modern forms of communication, smileys are not new. Archaeologists recently found a 4000-year-old smiley inked onto a pot near Turkey’s border with Syria.

The smiley face was found by restorers, who reassembled the white, large-bellied pot with a small handle.

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