Are Happy Faces in Professional Communication So Bad?

Lee DesserLee Desser, career and academic adviser, Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lmdesser

To smiley or not to smiley: that is the question. My first year out of graduate school I became involved in a heated debate around, of all things, smiley faces. As a summer program coordinator for George Mason University’s Social Innovation Program, I was in charge of overseeing ~25 students as they worked on consulting projects for various nonprofits in the northern Virginia area. As part of the program we held several sessions on professional communication.

We brought on a guest speaker who was serving as a consulting intern at Deloitte. She said, “There’s a space for happy faces in communication: texts, Facebook posts, and the like, but they should never be included in professional e-mails.” I had no idea the furry that would come as a result of this statement. One of our rowdy environmental studies students chimed in, “I disagree. Happy faces show approachability. They can help you connect with your colleagues and show appreciation of their hard work. There’s nothing unprofessional about them!” A public policy student said, “I agree! My teammates like a little winky. What’s the harm there?”

To this the consultant said, quite definitively, “No. Smileys shouldn’t be included in e-mails. It makes you look immature and unprofessional. It’s best not to include them.” At this point it was summertime in Virginia and about 80 degrees outside and we were drinking Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and eating white powdery donut holes. I thought they were going to fly across the room. OK maybe that’s an exaggeration! But I think both sides made solid points: Is it appropriate to include any emojis in e-mails? I wouldn’t want my lawyer to include them in briefs or my doctor in medical evaluations: Her cancer is in remission : ) That’s surely not appropriate…

However, I’ve struggled with this from time to time thinking, “Maybe it lessens my professional image by putting smileys in my e-mail” to “This e-mail totally calls for a smiley (maybe even two!).” What does it come down to? Ultimately, I think it’s somewhat industry (and office!) dependent. While certain conservative industries, such as finance and accounting, may be less accepting to a dose of smiley fun, other ones, especially creative and artistic industries and even education, are more accepting of personal vehicles of expression.

Ted Bouras, the Dean of Advising, Career, and Student Services at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, introduced me to the M.B.A. students in this way: “Lee’s first day was yesterday and she will shortly send a note to students about her availability on Zocalo. Until then you still have to put up with me as your adviser : ).” Notice the smiley? Was it absolutely necessary? No, but I thought it was a nice touch, especially for a summer e-mail.

So for me, to the question of whether to smiley or not to smiley to students in emails, I’ll smiley : )

 

4 thoughts on “Are Happy Faces in Professional Communication So Bad?

  1. I completely agree. My goal is to help students and to be accessible enough that they seek out my advice/resources. Building rapport over emails can and does certainly happen. I use my judgment on when to use smileys, but use them, I do!

  2. I agree too! It’s not appropriate in all situations or in every email – but a well-placed smiley face or wink now and then conveys warmth and friendliness. It’s okay to be warm and friendly!

  3. Hi Emily. Absolutely-it’s not appropriate all the time, but sometimes it adds a certain something extra! Thanks for your comment!

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