Emoticons – Is that What You Really Mean?

In the age of the computer, no college “Communications” class would be complete without a lesson in e-mail etiquette. Here, youngsters learn things like:

  • Don’t type IN ALL CAPS unless you want the reader to think you are yelling
  • Be concise, because nobody wants to read your rambling comments
  • Don’t over-use the high-priority flag
  • Only Reply-to-all when it’s really relevant
  • Tone can easily be misunderstood in e-mail, so be sure and make your intentions known

The list goes on. For the most part, etiquette is followed by those that live and die by the Inbox, but there’s one area of e-mail etiquette that is less covered, despite being possibly the most pernicious.

Emoticons – Those seemingly innocent little text-to-character symbols that one can use to display a variety of emotions. Emoticons are strings of characters, usually from 2 to 5, one can use to create pictures. In fact, one popular e-mail client can interpret several emoticon characters and display an actual picture.

Some popular emoticons include:

  • the wink: 😉
  • brite-eyes *¿*
  • very sad :<
  • kissing :-*

You get the picture (pun intended). The use of 99% of emoticons is relatively innocuous; you get the actual intent of the writer. However, arguably the most popular emoticon–the smiley face–is being used more and more as a way of “softening” the blow of something someone said.

Recently, in a perfectly innocent e-mail to a counterpart in a certain frozen pseudo-United States country to the north, I made reference to another person’s job. In her reply, my original recipient rambled on and in her last sentence, left the following barb:

“Oh and by the way, it’s MY job to castrate new employees. :)”

OK, that’s not really what she said, but it’s very close and she followed with a little happy face. If I were one to jump to conclusions (and I am), I would read that to say,

“Look a**hole, don’t say that’s her job when it’s really mine! Just because we
acquired your little company doesn’t mean you get to continue running your
little show down there.”

…which of course pissed me off! Granted, there are situations where the usage of the smiley is obvious, as in:

  • that mini you have on today really makes your ankles look nice 🙂
  • I got a raise 🙂

There’s no mistaking the intent here.

So I got to thinking about the inclusion of the happy face and how she used it as a way to “make nice” without really changing the underlying vitriol in her message, and I wondered what it would be like in real-life, face-to-face situations to be able to use a smiley. Upon reflection, I realized that it already happens!

  • “No sir Mr. Smith, vasectomies don’t hurt at all. In a day or two, you’ll be riding your motorcycle through the countryside” (BIG SMILE)
  • “Don’t look at this as a demotion. We’ve really just changed the focus of your responsibilities to more closely align with our business goals.” (BIG GRIN)

In summation, e-mail is just following real-life. But that doesn’t mean you don’t still want to just reach out and smack that stupid grin off their face…

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