Far from creating a positive impression on the recipient, virtual smileys in fact make the sender look like an idiot, according to scientists from Ben-Gurion University.
“Our findings provide first-time evidence that, contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence,” BGU post-doctorate fellow Dr Ella Glikson said in a statement. “In formal business emails, a smiley is not a smile.”
The study, published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was based on a series of experiments using 549 participants from 29 countries.
In one experiment, participants were asked to read a work-related email from an unknown person, and were asked to evaluate the competence and warmth of the sender — some of the messages included smileys and some did not.
The researchers found that unlike face-to-face smiles, which increase perceptions of both competence and warmth, virtual smileys had no effect on the perception of warmth and actually had a negative effect on the perception of competence.
“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,” Dr Glikson said. “We found that the perceptions of low competence if a smiley is included in turn undermined information sharing.”
Another experiment compared the use of a smiley face emoji to a smiling or neutral photograph. It found that in the case of a photograph, a smiling sender was perceived as more competent and friendly than a neutral one. But when an email on work-related matters contained a smiley, the sender was perceived as less competent, and perceptions of the sender’s friendliness were unchanged.
The researchers also found that when the gender of the email writer was unknown, people were more likely to assume the sender was 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,” Dr Glikson said. “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.”