Booklist Editor at Large Written English

Raise Your Hand If You Hate Emoticons

Emoticons: to use or not to use?

I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile– some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question.

Vladimir Nabokov, 1969

Emoticons, those smiling/frowning/Homer Simpson faces that come out of the punctuation marks on your keyboard, are a different sort of written communication. They can add warmth to a chilly business e-mail, or liven up a chat in a more dignified fashion than that abominable LOL.

However much I disapprove of out-loud LOLs and OMGs, I did always love how ROTFLMAO reverberated in my brain after I would read it on screen. Something about it reminds me of Animal from the Muppets:


Emoticons and Impropriety
Just like this blog, emoticons tread a fine line between informality and professionalism. They give you more power over how your words will be interpreted. But when is it appropriate to insert one into electronic communication? Is their use ever required? What do they say about the writer? It’s been over ten years since e-mail came into common use: are there any hard-and-fast rules on when it’s okay to put a smiley face on that “nice to meet you?”

SEND, a 2007 book on e-mail by two publishing veterans, has some great suggestions. At the time of publication, the New Yorker even said they had “put themselves forward as the genreā€™s Strunk and White” (and you know how I feel about Strunk and White).

For David Shipley, deputy editorial page editor and Op-Ed page editor of The New York Times, and Will Schwalbe, former editor-in-chief of Hyperion Books, clarity goes hand-in-hand with e-mail etiquette.

If you don’t consciously insert tone into an email, a kind of universal default tone won’t automatically be conveyed. Instead, the message written without regard to tone becomes a blank screen onto which the reader projects his own fears, prejudices, and anxieties.

Ergo, emoticons.

How Far Should You Emote?
Sometimes that insertion of tone is awkward, especially if it implies that your own words aren’t good enough to communicate your meaning. I agree with Shipley and Schwalbe, however, that a little awkwardness can be necessary. It’s certainly preferable to offending or otherwise alienating your reader. Indeed, after reading that Talk of the Town piece on their book, I started using far more exclamation points in my own e-mails, as they recommend, to illustrate enthusiasm for a project or emphasize my receptiveness to new ideas.

But I stopped short of using a Homer Simpson face ( ~(_8^(|) to soften up my blunders. Although Shipley and Schwalbe rubber-stamp their use, I am still chary with emoticons. You never know what your addressee might think.

When my boyfriend and I first courted over e-mail, I sent him long and literary letters lacking any parenthetical faces. Could I have been trying to keep him on his toes during those uncertain months of long distance? Or were we just doing our best to inject some old-fashioned epistolary romance into an electronic age?

Perhaps I just guessed early what I learned today: he hates emoticons.

9 replies on “Raise Your Hand If You Hate Emoticons”

I had to turn my head and squint a bit to see Homer in that emoticon.

This is a question I’ve struggled with and probably will continue to in my professional emails. My friends can tolerate my winky faces and still want to be my friends – my professional contacts….some yes, some no.

So I try to follow the “no sarcasm in professional email” rule, and continue to blunder along…I may have to add that book to my list.

The book’s been in the back of my mind since I saw that New Yorker “Talk of the Town” piece last YEAR…I think the no-sarcasm rule is a great start. I also have a sneaking suspicion that the use of emoticons is considered somewhat feminine (I say sneaking because I have no basis for it), so you might want to keep that in mind when corresponding with clients.

I have a firm rule against using anything of the sort in my professional emails. It is just, well, unprofessional. But here is a bit of a funny: I unfortunately use AOL. When I send an IM with my phone number (with an area code of 818) AOL automatically converts it to 81 smiley face!!!! Makes for interesting comments when I am IM’ing with a business associate. But such is the ubiquitous nature of those silly things that AOL takes it out of it’s poor simplistic users’ hands. Hope I our favorite blogger has time for us in the next couple of weeks. Word has it her calendar is quite full.

Of course I meant, “I hope”, and not “Hope I”. Dyslexia, like paranoia, strikes deep.

I just cannot get out of the habit of putting an apostrophe in to create a possessive “it’s”.

If I was interested in a girl and she kept using emoticons, that would be a deal breaker for me. They just irritate me.

I have a tech friend who was active in the early days of the internet. By early days I do not mean in the 1990s. I mean the seventies. He said the smiley (emoticons) appeared to help prevent misunderstandings in rapidly typed and sent messages between engineers and programmers. Fair enough.
The only time I use them is when I share a joke with my students who use English as a second language. Emoticons and smileys are of great use to students of a language.
With highly fluent and native speakers I had always found the use of things like ‘ho ho ho’ sufficed perfectly to express in writing the equivalent of a laugh, or that the reader was not to take something seriously.
Other use of them says to me ‘I can’t be bothered to craft this expression with any style or eloquence. so dammit, here’s an emoticon. You know what I mean.’
I bitterly bemoan the necessity of these things whenever anyone needs to crack a joke. Take Groucho Marx’s comment: ‘These are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.’ Funny? Should be. Put a laughing emoticon at the end of it and see how funny it looks then.
Resorting to emoticons instead of normal writing and having to use smileys in order to express humour highlights the present trend of not only a popular devaluation of elegance in writing and expression, but also an obnoxious habit of somehow finding amusement in pretending to be illiterate. This use rather like a school boy writing ‘i wuz ere’ on a desk in order to share a few infantile snickers with a friend. Sad face.

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