Smiley Faces

Posted On: 12.15.10

Smiley Balls

I have noticed something about myself. Something that makes me both ashamed and curious.

I often insert little smiley face emoticons into my emails and blog comments. Is this really any different than dotting an I with a star or a heart? Isn’t there something undeniably juvenile and silly about sprinkling my communications with tiny smiles? Doesn’t doing this somehow cheapen what I am trying to say?

I’m not sure, but maybe.

Why do I do continue to do this? Patently, I feel like there is something necessary or important about doing so. One thought: digital communication is missing something critical: emotional or interpersonal cues. It is tricky to detect tone when reading an email. It is often impossible to ascertain intent when lapping up lonely words. And so. Often, I insert a little smile to convey lightness or lilt. But is this lazy? If I chose words more carefully, would this smile-ification of my messages be necessary? Are the little smiles reminders that we should perhaps, from time to time, close the laptop and meet for coffee or make a phone call? Emotion and personality come through more clearly when communicating this way, don’t they?

A few more ideas: Is the ubiquity of the smiley face prime evidence of our paranoia? Our worry, irrational or maybe not so, that without these digital garnishes, we will offend or provoke? Is the contemporary use (overuse) of the smiley face flourish indicative of our culture’s obsession with happiness (or appearing happy)? Are we, by seasoning our sentiments with smiles, announcing Hey, I am happy! over and over?

**Short. Sweet. Smiley. Fewer words of mine = More words of yours. Leave a comment & send me on to your blog! :)**


Do you use smiley faces in your communications? Why or why not? Do you take a message less seriously when it is riddled with little smiles?

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35 Comments for: "Smiley Faces"
  1. I’m not much given to smiley faces on my own account, but I have found that people too easily misunderstand teasing or humor, etc, without some sort of hint that hey, this comment is not meant to offend!

    Which makes me wonder if it isn’t so much that as a culture we’re given to promoting the appearance of happiness, as it is that as a culture we take offense too easily!

  2. It is so easy to misinterpret email and , you’re right, perhaps the smiley face is to avoid offending. Strange though that we use these “faces” (my blackberry offers hundreds) in exchange for the real deal, the real face. Why do you think you use these faces but “frown” upon exclamation points?

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      You pose a good question. Why am I anti-exclamation point but pro-smiley? I don’t know. I guess it must be that I believe that the smiley actually accomplishes something vital that would otherwise be missing in quick communication. I am still unsure about what that something is. There is a lot of mention of fear of offending others, but I know that this is not my primary reason for sprinkling my sentences with that little yellow guy. I think, on some level, I am trying to infuse what I’m saying with warmth and wit. But, again, I’m not sure whether this is the best or more effective route to that goal…

  3. I am guilty of using the “smiley face” in email’s and text messages, and even on Twitter. I know why I do it too. I don’t want to offend anyone with what I am trying to say. It is very easy to misinterpret words that are written in black and white. So I inject smiley faces and exclamation points. Sometimes I even get annoyed with myself when I do this. But I would never want to offend anyone with what I am saying.

    I personally do not take a message less seriously when there are smiley faces scattered throughout!

  4. It’s true, texts and tweets preclude the nuance that are provided by carefully chosen words. (Words are still carefully chosen, but only for brevity.) In these situations I think a smiley face here and there can do wonders to replace some of that lost nuance. However, in e-mails and posts, where we are free to express ourselves more completely I agree that we should take the time and effort to express full sentiments with words. And, of course, building relationships in person helps us to correctly interpret the shorter bits of communication in between visits.

  5. i originally wasn’t much for the little smileys, but my sarcastic nature does not translate into email or text messages. and frankly, it’s faster (and cheaper) to include the smiley with the sarcastic text rather than send a separate “just kidding” afterwards.

    maybe it’s lazy and maybe i could switch my words around, but life is busy and being sarcastic is fun!

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Abby – I do think there is a noteworthy connection between sarcasm and smileys. As you say, sarcasm often doesn’t translate well in online communications. But I am left now wondering about sarcasm and why so many of us rely on it. Once upon a time, I wrote a very sarcastic post (I don’t remember what it was called, but will try to dig it up) and a reader of mine pointed out the perils of sarcasm. From then on, I have wondered about this. Whether being sarcastic is in fact being “sarcaustic”? Who knows. I do agree though that the use of emoticons has something to do with how busy and rushed modern life has become, that these little symbols have become shortcuts we have come to rely on. Thanks for chiming in!

  6. Go ahead and use those smiley faces! 🙂 I agree that we do need to add some emotion into our digital communication. Sometimes it’s just not possible to pick up the phone at that very moment. Just yesterday my youngest son replied to one of my texts with, “Am I in trouble?” He misunderstood the tone of my message when I told him to get crackin’ on his homework. The issue was quickly resolved and we both agreed that it’s one of the hazards of texting.

    Have a wonderful day! 🙂

  7. I have come to embrace the smiley.

    Early days I never used them. They were unsophisticated, silly, the worst thing about electronic communication.

    But then … well, I realized that punctuation use changes. And while Smiley Overload is real – as is Font Abuse and Gratuitous Exclamation Point Syndrome – a well-placed 🙂 says things that words cannot.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I am the same way. In the beginning (not sure what that means or when that was really), I never used these emoticons. But slowly (and unconsciously), I came to embrace them. The mere fact that I embraced them (and that so many of us have) says something to me. That these little smileys do something words cannot do, as you say. I just which I could properly articulate what that something is. Ah, the smiley mystery 🙂

  8. I think as we’ve embraced virtual technology, and all the faceless communication it entails, we do need some kind of non-verbal cue to show that the remark shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Without seeing the speaker wink and let you in on a joke, or give the meaning in the tone of voice over the phone, it’s easy to get lost in virtual translation, which I think is why smilies are useful. It’s a visual (or maybe even grammatical?) shorthand. I wonder if someday, in the future, grammar students will be studying not only rules of punctuation and capitalization, but also of proper smiley-zation? From their virtual I-classroom or whatever, of course! 😉

  9. D

    For me, it is all about context. I use emoticons in my non-work related emails the same way I use internet speak like Lol or btw. It is a way of relaxing and being a little more fun in my personal life. I am sure it stems from the non-smiley face nature of my work, somehow negotiating prison sentences doesn’t lend itself well to frowny faces.
    For you, I say embrace the face, with them your messages connote warmth. And who couldn’t use a bit more of that these days.
    Hope you are feeling well!

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      D – How are you??? Good, I hope. I love the idea that we can (and perhaps) should relax a bit in our personal lives and that sometimes this relaxation comes in the form of playful fun in our digital communications. Why not, right?

      “Embrace the face.” Love it!

      Good to see you here!

  10. I have a twisted sense of humor that “complements” my sarcasm so sometimes I’ll throw out the winky face to try and help illustrate my point.

    Not really sure if it helps, but…

  11. Lately, I’ve been using more & more smiley faces, but I’ve always been a overuser of the exclamation point. And sometimes, I’ll use a smiley face–just a smiley face & no words–to convey something that I can’t put into words. In that sense, a smiley face can be used in defiance of digital communication. It’s a way of saying that not everything can be reduced to typewritten words. It’s a refusal of the pressure to communicate in a crisp, concise, almost clinical manner. Even handwriting is more expressive than something written in type. That’s one thing I miss these days: seeing everyone’s handwriting on a daily basis.

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I love the idea that in some way maybe the smiley face can be used to defy digital communication. I have never thought of it that way before, but it does make sense. It does amaze me how far we’ve moved from old school handwritten words… It’s sad, but I have literally forgotten how to hand write. Starting in law school, I began depending exclusively on the computer and the trend has only worsened. These days, my grip on a pen is shaky at best. Not good. What I do love though? Seeing Toddler bent over a sheet of paper, crayon in hand, writing her own name. I see this and feel hopeful 🙂

  12. Please. Do you need to apologise to me for smiling at me? Like if I get too many smiles in a day I’m gonna explode? The world should be so lucky that we suffer such a disease.

    Do you smile a lot in person?

    Smile away. Please. It makes me happy. It is uplifting. But only if you are feeling good.

    Do you insert the smile because you’re trying to please me or because you are pleased?

    (and now…I suffer…because I want to insert a smiley face here and I fail because I don’t know how…but please know I am smiling.) See how clunky that is? Wouldn’t it be better if I, like you, just clicked and smiled???!

    • Rebecca, you’re so right!!!

    • Well said Rebecca – I couldn’t agree more. 🙂

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Rebecca – What’s interesting (or maybe not) is that I don’t think I smile a lot in person. This isn’t intentional, but just the way it is. I have long realized that my “default face” is smile-free. Not sure why. Maybe I sprinkle my sentences with smiley faces to combat what I see as my slightly serious/melancholy leanings, to keep things light? In any event, I think you are right in that there is absolutely no harm in real or digital smiles. Particularly if they come from a good – and real – place.

  13. Aidan, I do the exact same thing you do. It’s though I’m afraid that my words might offend someone (when I’m CLEARLY kidding!) – and sometimes I think I’m not brave enough to just put it all out there. So… I go back and try to erase them, if I think about it. I’ve made it a point not to use them in my blog (I suppose I know that people recognize that it’s a place for sarcasm, etc), but in real-life emails, I am emoticon guilty-as-charged.

    A hilarious anecdote relating to emoticons: my husband once received a cover letter from a friend (he was going to pass it on to a contact), and in the middle was a giant, ANIMATED EMOTICON! Never, never never should an emoticon (especially not an animated one) be used in a cover letter… unless you’re applying to work at an emoticon company. Still, it makes me smile to think of the giant, animated emoticon, dancing around or whatever it was doing. Needless to say, he did not pass the cover letter on…

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      Ha! This makes me smile. A big and real and non-digital smile. Yes, there are places where emoticons are fine and there are places where they are downright inappropriate. I think about this sometimes, about how the next generation will handle their reliance on contemporary digital bites. Will there be LOLs and xoxo’s on resumes? Who knows.

      Reading your comment (and the others here), I am heartened to know that I am far from alone in my overuse of emoticons. Ultimately, this is one of the main reasons I blog; to realize than in most everything, I am leagues from alone. Thanks!

  14. Thanks to emoticons, we can now completely avoid in-person interpersonal communication, personal, business, or otherwise. Think of all the money the world is saving on plane trips and lunch meetings. Hooray! … 🙂

  15. I embrace the smiley .

  16. I use the smiley face and it’s important to me. Sometimes I just need to text someone close to me just to say “hey I’m having a bad day” but I’ll add the happy face just so they know I’m trudging through.. that I’m okay. And it reminds me that.. yes I am okay. I love the smiley face! 🙂

    • Aidan Donnelley Rowley

      I agree that sometimes the smiley goes a long way in communicating contrast. If we say something a bit sad or serious, it is so easy (and often so appropriate) to toss in the smiley to remind the person to whom we are speaking (and to remind ourselves) that, yes, we are okay. This is an important function, no? Another good reason to keep up the digital smiling 🙂

  17. I use them too often as well. I try desperately not to use them while blogging, and to use my words instead, but while leaving comments I often use the smiley. I use them to show that I am kidding, I use them to show that I meant that with a smile. I use them to close out comments when I don’t know how else to end what I am saying. Mostly though, I find that I use them at the same time I would use a smile if we were having a conversation in real life. When I am trying to be witty, when I feel an awkward pause in conversation, when I just don’t know what else to say. I smile a lot in real life, so why not in the online world as well? 🙂

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  19. I, too, am a sarcastic person so I include the smiley to take the edge of off my words. At the same time, I do not find smiley faces detract from a person’s words–especially if I know them.

  20. I think it depends on the circumstance. A friend of mine recently showed me an e-mail from an HR person at a temp job she was working. It had 10 exclamation marks and 3 smileys. To say it made her less than comfortable in putting her benefits capabilities in her hands would be a bit of an understatement. But as someone who frequently gets called out at work for a “negative tone,” I find smileys occasionally useful for those colleagues I work with a lot and know are sensitive.

  21. Katherine

    Why wouldn’t we use all forms of expression available to us? I was a linguistics major in college and I remember one of my professors making a very good point: the person with the best command of English isn’t the one who only speaks queens english or another high-brow form, its the person who can use all versions — who has command of the most common through the most eloquent. The person who wrote the Wire has a great command of English. Its about knowing when to get all technical and when to whip out your vocab and fancy grammar to convey your emotions, and when to use an emoticon. Its like clothes — some forms of expression are appropriate for a blog, a text or a quick email, others when you are trying to prove yourself…and if you are always trying to prove yourself…I’m exhausted hearing from you. Basically, I’m not going to snub my nose at any form of the written word — I’ll just snub my nose based on context.

    As for hearts to dot my “i’s” — please…that’s just about what kind of girl you are.

  22. i’m sort of uncomfortable about emoticons but they can be used judiciously I think. I’ve been trying to avoid overuse of exclamation marks too because I think they indicate a certain teenage kind of mentality. the have their place, there’s just no need to end every sentence with six in a row!

  23. I’ve been thinking and writing about how we form connections and relationships online, and using an emoticon can definitely help with tone and meaning. So though they seem a little silly in some ways, they serve a role. I see both sides… I’ll you know when I post something on the topic!

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