When you are having a conversation, you communicate not just with words, but with the tone of your voice, the speed at which you talk, your facial expressions, your posture and gestures. On the whole you can tell when someone is being serious and when they are joking.
There are lots of clues you pick up which alert you to the fact that someone is upset, or angry, or determined. When you send an email, as when you write a letter, these clues are not available. With digital communication we try to get round this by inserting pictures or signifiers of smiley or frowny faces, or winks etc.
When we use emoticons we show that we want our words to carry emotional weight. We want to strike the right note and worry that what we have said doesn’t manage that. Using these symbols suggests that you are uncertain about the words you are using and need to direct the reader as to how to interpret what you have said. The effect of this may be to make the whole message seem uncertain and unconvincing, especially if you add a smile or a kiss to a message which contains criticism or complaint. You might as well just scream ‘Please like me! I didn’t mean to be horrible!’
Not all your recipients will respond well to emoticons. The symbols look clunky and disrupt the flow of words. They force the recipient to stop and re-evaluate what they have read. They might think oh, that was a just a joke, was it? Or oh, why the frowny face? Is there something else I should know?
Instead of relying on or resorting to symbols, why not spend a little time getting the words right? Select words which adequately express the feeling or emotion you want to convey. If you are pleased about something, choose from the range of expressions which communicate this. You may be pleased, delighted, glad, happy, satisfied, thrilled, gratified, content. If you are displeased, you could be annoyed, disturbed, irritated, frustrated, bothered, unhappy, dissatisfied, concerned, worried, angry, let down, disappointed. If you are giving an instruction, there are ways of putting it which sound peremptory and others which are softer. You can choose between ‘I expect you to’ and ‘Can you’ or ‘Would you’. Experiment with words and phrases until you hit the note that fits your purpose.
There has always been the impulse to assert our personality within the conventions of letter-writing. Pre-digital age, we would decorate personal letters with drawings of flowers and stars and yes, smiley and frowny faces. We would turn the dot on the i into a circle or a heart and work our pets’ paw prints into our signatures. What, you didn’t? You probably didn’t use a highly scented gel pen either. The equivalent today is the way we sign off a work email. As if it’s a last chance to show our warmth and humanity we declare ‘Love’ to anyone and everyone, and then add a x or xx or even xxx, no matter what the content of the mail or our relationship with the recipient.
Stop and think before you sign off in this way. If you were sending a traditional letter, would you do it? If the answer is no, don’t do it in electronic communication. It’s just safer not to.
And finally, stop and think before you even write that email. Is the subject one which would be better discussed in person? If so, and if it is possible, why not go and have an old-school face-to-face talk?