The power of emoticons

How do you communicate emotion? If you are face to face with someone you can use anything from a delicately raised eyebrow, to a slight variation in tone of voice, to a shift in posture to communicate the nuances of what you are feeling. The truth though, is that a lot of communication these days is not face to face. A good percentage of communication now is via email or text message (SMS) and sensing the deficit in nuance of these media we have turned to the emoticon and as a new study has found, it seems to be quite effective.

Professor Scott E. Fahlman, from the department of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA is credited with inventing the emoticon, although a few million ancient Egyptian hieroglyph artists may beg to differ. In the modern context though we can probably ascribe emoticons to Prof Fahlman who suggested for the faculty message board that the use of the symbols 🙂 after a post would indicate that was meant to be funny and humorous while 🙁 would indicate that was not meant to be funny and was a serious remark. At some point this idea became amalgamated with the yellow smiley face developed by Harvey Ball. In 1963 Ball was hired by an insurance company to design a face to be used on buttons and cards in order to raise employee morale. It took him 10 minutes to create the smiley face and he earned $45 for his efforts. When the inspirations of Fahlman and Ball came together it was the beginning of the panoply of emoticons that we have available today.

Today we all use emoticons, but how effective are they as a communication tool? According to a new study, even in the business context, they can be quite effective.

For the study subjects were assigned to interact with one of nine different versions of an e-commerce site. Each version represented a different variation in response; a response either immediately, in one hour, or in six hours and the response either was text only, text and pictures, or text and emoticons. The subjects were then surveyed as to how they felt about the interaction.

Of course, agents who responded more quickly to the subjects during the interaction were rated more positively. The use of emoticons, but not the use of pictures, also led to a greater positive rating. Analysis revealed that a quick response made the subject feel they were together in a physical sense with the customer service person while emoticons made them feel that they were emotionally connected.

It seems from this that emoticons, even in the business arena, can help create that emotional bond when we are not face to face. Or maybe the connection of today is really smiley-face-to-smiley-face?

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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