What does that smiley face mean? And should you use it?

emoticon_zipperThere’s been buzz about the use of emoticons like the smiley face 🙂 or wink 😉 in the workplace. A New York Times article in 2011. Huffington Post took on the topic in a 2011 article and again in this 2012 article. A post by Gemma Stoyle at Linguistics Research Digest spurred my thinking about what emoticons mean and when they’re appropriate.

Research by Eli Dresner and Susan C. Herring identified three “meanings” of emoticons.

First, an emoticon can indicate emotion. This is the prototypical use where the visual is mapped directly onto a facial expression.

  • I just got paid 😀  means the writer is feeling very happy about the message he or she just wrote.

Second, an emoticon can have a non-emotional meaning. In these cases, the emoticon represents a conventional facial expression.

  • She is so graceful 😉 means the writer is using a wink to indicate his or her intent to make a joke with the message written.

Third, an emoticon can have a non-emotional meaning that is not represented with a conventional facial expression.

  • The movie was stupid 🙂 means the writer is only asserting the message he or she has written not actually complaining.

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