is it unprofessional to use emoticons in work emails?

A reader writes:

What is your feeling on using emoticons (smiley faces, etc.) in professional emails? My first reaction is “no, they are too childish and unprofessional,” but then I find myself sometimes wanting to use them to add some levity to an email, or soften some language, or convey a friendly message. Since emails can be sometimes taken the wrong way, I feel like it would be sometimes easier to just add an emoticon versus spending time trying to word something perfectly so that the recipient gets my meaning. But I usually stop myself unless I know the person quite well and/or they have used them in an email to me. What are your thoughts?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 285 comments… read them below }

      1. Snark*

        10 years ago or 10 minutes ago, I would NEVER DARE use an emoji at work, unless the recipient were one particular person I’m chummy with. It’s fully dependent on field, but unless you see emoji and GIFs regularly, err on the side of never using them. And the number of fields where this is acceptable is tiny.

        1. Look, a bee!*

          There’a a difference between an emoji and an emoticon. An emoticon is something made with characters on your keyboard, like the traditional smiley face :) whereas an emoji is an actual small picture, think the aubergine or love hearts that are so ubiquitous on Facebook and whatsapp. An emoji strikes me as more unprofessional, but I can’t see the harm in an emoticon when used sparingly.

            1. Mary Dempster*

              It’s the same as saying there’s no distinction between saying “haha” in an email and sending a gif of someone laughing hilariously. There is.

              1. Snark*

                I’m acknowledging the distinction, but I think either way, it’s got no business in a professional email. Whether it’s a :) or an emoji or a gif, it’s to be avoided, so…like I said, distinction without a difference.

            2. Look, a bee!*

              There absolutely is. A ‘:)’ is a very different animal to a small colourful distracting picture.

            3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

              As an emoticon user, I promise you, there is a VAST difference ;)

          1. SSS*

            I used to get weird random letters in emails from my husband when he sent me emails from his work address. After a while, I asked him about them. It turns out he was adding emojis to the email, but they were getting converted into letters (such as just the letter j) before they reached my email. I would leave them out of professional emails since you don’t know how they will end up on the receiving end.

            1. Aspiring Person*

              I was going o say the same thing. My mother does emojis sometimes. It converts into letters because the pictures are actually a specialty font (like wingdings) but show up as the same font at the receiving end.

              Also, I use a screen reader sometimes to accommodate my disability. Even if the picture is on my screen, these things read the underlying text. There have been times I thought there was a new (corporate) initialism that I was unaware of and get confused.

              Everyone is well-intentioned, but it is often the small things that interfere with disabilities. You wouldn’t think it but this is one of them.

        2. Alex*

          I’ve never held a job where emoticons were 100% off limits. I’ve worked in sales, marketing, academia, and publishing. This is highly dependent on office culture.

          1. MCMonkeyBean*

            Yeah, I’m an accountant and I have both sent and received smiley faces on occasion. You don’t to overuse them or be the person who is known for sending smiles, but occasionally they are helpful to soften the tone or make it clear that you are joking or something when those kinds of things don’t come across well in text.

            I would probably steer clear of winky faces at work though

            1. Samata*

              See, in all places I have worked I have seen adding this to try to lighten an email comes across as rather snarky…Like “I know I was a total ass but here’s my face smile to make it all better”

          2. Melissa*

            I work at a state government agency, and even we don’t treat emoticons as 100% off limits. They’re sparingly used and never with an external recipient, though.

        3. Mary Dempster*

          Hardly “tiny” – I’m in hospitality and work with condo owners, and it’s a very different relationship than you’d have with clients (i.e. many are so thrilled about my current pregnancy they asked for my registry information).

          With those people I’m fine sending a “Thanks for the note! :)” e-mail.

        4. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

          I use it because in general if I am talking to you, you are on the Arya list. However, occasionally I need to send emails unrelated to performance. I add :) to avoid the well earned reputation I have as “If she talks to you firing/, demotion is coming”

    1. Sassy AE*

      Depends fully on the industry. I’m in agency PR and it’s fine in some case, especially because we’re urged to develop a congenial and friendly tone with journalists and (some) clients. Know your audience.

      1. Cobol*

        I was in agency PR and had to force myself to use animated GIFs extensively, in order to not come across as rude.

          1. Kimberlee, Esq.*

            yeeessss at this point in my career I would fully not work at a place that didn’t use gifs and emoji liberally. It would just be too button-down for me to feel like I could be a human.

            1. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

              At my old job we had a colleague rule that if you couldn’t say it with a cat gif it didn’t need to be said. It was like modern heiroglyphics. Only thing I miss from that job

        1. Falling Diphthong*

          This would drive me mad. I would probably wind up with a sociology-esque binder on my desk of the appropriate GIFs to insert after different thoughts.

          “I think the font for this chart is too small.” (dancing monkeys)
          “The vector is pointing left; it should point right.” (exploding pizza)

      2. SKA*

        Yeah, I wouldn’t want to get an email from a doctor or lawyer with a frowny face (OR smiley!). But as a graphic designer in the tech realm, they pop up daily.

        Although my last job was for a small design firm in a conservative rural area, where our clients were typically small business owners aged 50 or older — emoticons were a no-go there.

        1. Sutemi*

          As a patient, I don’t want an email from my doctor with emoticons.

          When the doctor is sending a message to the office staff they see every week or a colleague at the hospital that they are meeting for lunch, the emoticon might be entirely appropriate.

      3. Snark*

        My feeling is that your field is the exception that proves the rule. I’ve been in academia, consulting, and government contracting, and I’d sooner use profanity than emoji.

        1. Rat in the Sugar*

          I dunno, I work in government contracting and I’ve used an occasional smiley face. I’ve sent them in internal emails, and even external ones when I am communicating with one of our subs or a vendor (more often with vendors). I work in Accounting, and I only use emoticons if the other party used them first or otherwise switched to a more casual tone. I mean, if a government agent sends me an email and they use a conversational tone and include a smiley, I’ll use one back. It’s not common, and I always watch the tone of who I’m talking to and let them take the lead, but it’s not like they’ll take our contracts away for using them. I don’t think they’re all that bad.

        2. blackcat*

          I am in academia and see both profanity and emoticons in email frequently (sometimes paired together).

        3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          That sounds kind of…. extreme? I don’t know, emoticon use is super normal in my field. Certainly not in business correspondence to the opposing party’s counsel, but normal in moderation for in-house emails to staff/peers.

        4. Blue*

          I’m in academia, and while I see them infrequently, emoticons do appear in my correspondence. Personally, I use them sparingly and only with people I already know, mostly those within my immediate office. On one memorable occasion, I did send a student a Harry Styles .gif, but that was an unusual situation…

    2. aebhel*

      …news to nearly everyone I correspond with at work. I think this depends a lot on where you work.

      1. OxfordComma*

        We use them here (academic environment). Usually more in IMs and it is context dependent, but I’ve used them and seen them and I think nothing of them anymore.

        I’m more irked by people who address me automatically as “Mrs.”

    3. Amber Rose*

      Add me to the list of people who regularly receives professional emails with emoticons. I don’t do it myself, but I don’t think poorly of anyone who does.

          1. Marillenbaum*

            Sometimes. I know it’s rarely my best self, but we all have a running commentary in our brains, and occasionally, mine tends petty.

    4. Trout 'Waver*

      Anyone else old enough to remember when the argument was whether it is unprofessional to use e-mail for business correspondence?

      1. Purplesaurus*

        Oh my. When was this happening? I assumed email was always intended to be for business use.

        1. Lora*

          Early 90s.

          You couldn’t really format email well then. You’d get your stuff off Pine and literally everything looked like a command line interface. No real paragraph spacing. And servers were super unstable, you know how in Office Space the server goes down and they all go out for breakfast waiting for it to come back up? That was normal. Except it could go down for a day or two and everyone just shrugged. If you sent something via email you might as well have sent it via Pony Express. If you wanted it to actually get where it was going and be fairly readable, you had to print it out and put it in interoffice mail.

      2. Ramona Flowers*

        I remember when university professors used to beg students to use the internet and not just books.

        1. Lora*

          When I was an undergrad we had a special class on how to search the internet for scientific information, because 1) most people came to college not knowing how and 2) there were big institutional sites like the Smithsonian’s and a fraction of the scientific journals (Science, Nature, Cell, the really big ones mostly) had started publishing electronic versions alongside the paper versions, but for the most part the internet was populated by Usenet arguments.

      3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        OMG, there’s still a U.S. Appeals Court that drafts formal letters to one another, prints them out, then FAXES them to the other judges. Apparently the older judges still believe email is an “inappropriate” and “overly casual” medium for business communications.

        1. Susan Calvin*

          Must be the same ones that consider pants on female lawyers a severe dresscode violation…

    5. kittymommy*

      Ehh, I think it’s dependant on the industry, who you’re emailing, and what you’re emailing about. I don’t think there’s a flat rule that applies to everything/everywhere.

      1. Snark*

        Eh, I think there’s still a flat rule – and a few fields that have lapsed in their standards for professionalism. Most fields, most workplaces, you’d be considered a lunatic if you used emoji, let alone animated GIFs, in an email.

        1. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

          Emoticons aren’t the same thing as emoji. Emoji are little pictures. Emoticons are text based, e.g. :)

            1. Snark*

              I’m being hyperbolic, but even a :) would be viewed very, very weirdly by most anybody I correspond with professionally.

              1. Specialk9*

                So here’s the thing, Snark, you keep insisting your rule is absolute, and people keep telling you it’s not, and then you double down even more. It’s ok to think something is a rule, based on one’s experience, but learn it’s more variable than you thought.

                1. Snark*

                  It’s more variable than I thought, and the rule is clearly not absolute, but I maintain that it’s unprofessional and that fields where it’s common would be well-served to eliminate it.

          1. Snark*

            Sure, but I think they’re basically filling the same role, no? My point applies to both.

            1. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

              I do think emoji are perceived as trendier/more informal than emoticons, since emoticons have been around since the 80s and everything that old becomes acceptable over time if it doesn’t go away. Emojis are still new and associated with young people.

              But I’m not sure about your contention that “most fields” are too formal for emoticons. I don’t know whether it’s most fields or not, and I suspect you don’t have the data either – all either of us would be doing is guessing based on our own limited personal experience. There seem to be more people in the comments here that find them normal enough than people hard-line opposed to them, but this site isn’t a random sample either. I think if you included non-office jobs the balance would definitely tilt towards them being considered fine. If you restrict your universe to law and finance/banking-related jobs you’ll probably find it tilts towards unacceptable. The truth is somewhere in between, but I don’t think either of us knows for certain.

              1. MCMonkeyBean*

                I’m in finance and it’s normal in my office! It’s not like every email is filled with them but I have on occasion received an email from my boss that says something like “Yay we filed our quarterly reports, thanks everyone for your hard work! :)”

          2. Look, a bee!*

            Ah I see you already made the point I just made elsewhere! Glad I’m not the only one who acknowledges the difference between an emoji and emoticon, people seem to use them interchangeably ;)

        2. Alex*

          I don’t think they’ve “lapsed” in their standards for professionalism as much as these standards are changing. I definitely think your experiences are on the extreme end of the spectrum.

      2. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*


        In my job I use them, but typically it’s with people I have a warm/close working relationship with…a coworker whose work is interdependent with mine, my boss or direct report, or a vendor we’ve worked with for years. It’s one of those subtle ways that you display a personal connection, like when a salesperson asks, “How are the wife and kids, little Lisa is graduating this year isn’t she?”

        Similar to Alison saying you wouldn’t want to use them in job application materials, I wouldn’t personally use them in “colder” emails that I send to people I don’t have a pre-existing relationship with, but that’s because I represent a stuffier brand and I might be the first contact someone has with our brand – they need to hear from the brand and not me personally at that point. Over time that balance can shift as we develop a working relationship. I get cold sales emails from brands that have a more relaxed/fun/”cool” public image and they use smiley faces more liberally, and it doesn’t turn me off. They’re actually doing exactly what I do when I don’t use smileys – speaking in the voice of their brand.

        1. The OG Anonsie*

          Agreed. This, like all levels of formality and voice/tone in any correspondence, is heavily context dependent.

    6. Akcipitrokulo*

      It depends. I’ve been known to send a reply consisting entirely of one emoticon ( we’d had a lot of technical issues, I got email saying all done, I sent a grinning smilie back). Within a team where we know each other well, it’s fine. To someone outide the team or in a more formal email, I word things carefully.

      My default is none… unless I know it’s going to be ok. And in my environment, it goes a long way.

      1. Arjay*

        Yes. I do a lot of testing and reporting of bugs, and sometimes I’ll use a smiley to indicate something I wouldn’t say out loud: I found this bug that needs to be fixed, but I don’t think you’re a bad person who writes bad code, because sometimes bugs happen.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Devs know my job is to make them look good :)

          I have seen more confrontation dev/tester relations and it helps no-one.

          Although pointing out a bug is the one time I wouldn’t use an emoticon personally. Maybe in a different paragraph in same email, but would feel a bit sarcastic to me. I tend to use passive voice a lot and always talk about what the system has done.

          1. Arjay*

            That’s pretty much how I use them. I went back and looked at some ,messages and I didn’t use the smiley pointing out the bug, but once it was supposed to be fixed, I did say, “Thanks, I’ll re-test. :)”

    7. Akcipitrokulo*

      And my colleagues take me seriously. They know I’m good at what I do, I can be trusted to do what I say and we have a very productive department. Part of that IS a degree of levity when appropriate… especially as, in my position as QA, if dome wrong, a lot of my communications could appear to be being critical or confronrational. I NEED to have a good relationship to tell them their code has an error.

      1. Taylor Swift*

        Yes, exactly. Showing some humanity at work is so important. I do not want to work with people who are formal robots 100% of the time. The people I work with don’t want me to be a formal robot 100% of the time.

        1. Akcipitrokulo*

          Yep. And the friendliness being there as a matter of course is easier than inserting when softening is needed. It doesn’t mean you need emoticons… but for me, in this team, it works. One of devs never uses them… that’s his style. And he is wonderful!

    8. Time Bomb of Petulance*

      I think it’s better to actually use an emoticon than to literally write out the word that the emoticon would replace like a former supervisor of mine used to do (e.g., “Thank you for the information. *SMILE*”)

        1. SusanIvanova*

          Because it looks like an imperative command – SMILE ! Or else! – instead of a noun describing the sender’s state.

    9. EmmBee*

      I’m a VP.

      My team and I email emoji AND gifs to each other.

      This is a clear case of “read the room.” Would I email an emoji to my CEO? No.

    10. Specialk9*

      Uh no. It’s worth stopping and thinking, every time, whether one needs that “:)” but there is a place for warm collegial interaction by email. My rule of thumb is very formal on group emails, but more informal with individuals as fits the situation.

    11. Danger: Gumption Ahead*

      I use them quite often because people take me all too seriously too often. I am the department’s official buttocks kicker. I add a smile to signal “No worries” because some wildly off the mark things have been read into some truly bland phrases.

    1. Purplesaurus*

      Same. Although I only use them when emailing a single person with whom I already have a working relationship.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Same here. We used :) :( and ;) at Exjob, and with people I knew, we often had fun with the ones in Lync IM. AwesomeBoss was fond of posting the beer one when it was quitting time, hahaha.

        But I woudn’t do it when talking to a client, unless we were emailing non-work stuff–like a conversation I had with a client in Costa Rica at OldExjob, when we were talking about vacations and learning Spanish. And I definitely wouldn’t do it with anyone above my supervisor’s level.

    2. TootsNYC*

      dependent on the email as well.

      A convo between me and a counterpart about a minor matter–OK.
      An email to the Big Cheese about policy/problems? Nope.

      1. Escapee from Corporate Management*

        Agreed. Also dependent on the industry. I’m in a regulated business where the Federal government can (and will) request your emails. Emoticons do not create a positive reaction!

      2. Beatrice*

        I punctuated some graphs illustrating a problem to my boss with the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, and speak-no-evil monkey emojis last year. It was humorous and helped convey the point that it was a huge problem that we had our heads in the sand about. I had zero regrets for doing it and I don’t think it impacted his impression of my professionalism at all. He left them in when passing my analysis up the chain.

  1. Future Dev (formerly CA Admin)*

    So dependent on your workplace/culture. I work in Finance and they’re not super common, but do occasionally get used for emails to/from team members. The tone is set from our group head, who’s a bit more informal than the rest of the firm. That said, I would NEVER use them when communicating with someone outside my team or outside the firm.

      1. Snark*

        Even internally, I dunno. On an IM program, sure. In emails? It’s just not professional enough, IMO. And dear god no, not for outside contacts.

        1. BenAdminGeek*

          What’s the true difference in communicating via email vs IM internally? I certainly use them more frequently in IM, but in a casual “thanks” or “here’s the answer we wanted” email, I don’t see any harm.

    1. Amber T*

      What’s funny is that I (also working in finance) almost use them exclusively with people outside the firm. It’s a very few, select group of people who I communicate with regularly, and usually when we switch from large group emails with my team and their team involved (here’s this formal email stating what we’re doing and what our progress is) to one-on-one emails where we actually get the work done. Our standard rule of thumb for emails at my company is – don’t send something you would be ashamed of if Major Bosses read it. I wouldn’t be ashamed if they read my email saying ‘Hope you have a nice vacation! :)’

    2. Desdemona*

      Congratulations Future Dev! What’s your learning path?
      +1 to using them but only inside the team. I work on a team where PO and design aren’t colocated, and use them mostly to clarify tone with those groups, so questions don’t come across as arguments.

  2. Noah*

    I use them occasionally because I can be a bit sarcastic both in person and in email. It helps to convey the intended tone and prevent misunderstandings.

    1. NotAnotherManager!*

      Same, but very sparingly, only with a select few internal people with whom I have a good working relationship and emoticons only, absolutely no emojis. But I also work in a conservative and formal industry.

      1. Karen K*

        Same here. Depends totally on who you’re communicating with and what you’re communicating, and are pretty much limited to smiley faces and the occasional frowny face.

      2. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

        It’s definitely a friendly-relationship sort of thing to do. Like when there’s a department-wide announcement that we hit our goals for the quarter early, and someone replies, “Well, I’m hitting the beaches, see you in Q3! ;)”

        The email isn’t necessary for any business purpose but it is one of those small things that can help build a sense of camaraderie on the team, feeling free to send little jokes to each other.

      1. Koko ¯\_(ツ)_/¯*

        Because some fields are fine with it, and some people naturally have that disposition and in their field don’t have any cause to suppress it.

        1. Cobol*

          I’d take it a step further and say because it would be considered impolite on many environments to not behave in a more casual manner to colleagues after you had known them for a while, sarcasm includes.

      2. Look, a bee!*

        Professional correspondence literally means to me ‘correspondence in the workplace’. Are you saying that you’ve never had a workplace where you’ve been friendly or chummy enough with a coworker to be able to slip into regular non guarded speech styles like sarcasm/jokes/ribbing and so forth? Not even via IM?

        By definition, any IM I send my coworker, any email to my admin, any letter to my boss, any text to my peer are all professional correspondence.

      3. zora*

        I have a feeling you are assuming that any time we are emailing at work is Important Professional Correspondance.

        Maybe it’s my circumstances, but about 80% of the people I work with every day work in different cities, so email takes the place of daily normal conversation. It’s pretty common for us to throw :) or ;) into our emails as we just casually go about our daily work. Just like I would be fine using slang if talking to them out loud in person.

  3. VX34*

    A few years ago, I would’ve said “Not just no, but hell no.”

    But after working in a few roles where the culture was such that reasonable use of built in emoticons on a corporate messenger system, or an occasional smiley face in an email…I think this answer has to be “It really depends”.

    I think I would feel out of place with my most recent teams if I *didn’t* use them noe and again, for instance.

    1. Falling Diphthong*

      This is where I am. I don’t use them*. I’m a writer, so the implied ‘not sure what words to use to get this across’ would be bad in a work email–it’s not like we’re going to use emoticons to explain the Clausius-Clapeyron equation**. It’s less weird if the email is from, say, the accounting department.

      *Routinely, I argue with my phone about using them. No, I don’t want a tiny icon of a shirt, I just want the word ‘shirt.’ No more updates for you!

      **Possibly someone has. I maintain that it was to prove that it could be done, rather than because it was a good idea. Like making underwear out of fruit.

      1. Specialk9*

        “it was to prove that it could be done, rather than because it was a good idea. Like making underwear out of fruit.”


  4. Atomic Orange*

    I use emojis, but only sparingly, only to coworkers that I’m friendly with, and only a few selective happy looking faces that are sufficiently bland and inoffensive. For example, if we had a few back and forth regarding a topic that came to a conclusion and I end the conversation by wishing them a happy weekend… might add a :) at the end of that haha. But this certainly depends on the company culture and your relationship with the people you’re emailing. From what you described, I think you’re fine.

    1. healthnerd*

      +1 I only use them sparingly if I’m emailing a coworker I’m friendly with as well.

      A few years back, I was trying to coordinate with an outside vendor that I had never worked with before and she used a smiley face emoticon in every email. Drove me absolutely bonkers!

  5. AJHall*

    Hell, no. Quite apart from anything else, the most common use of the smiley face or its cognates comes over as very passive-aggressive: we have periodic desk inspections to check compliance with our clean desk policy and the way of conveying a “fail” is to leave a piece of paper with a frowny face emoticon on the offending desk. It’s infuriating.

      1. Purplesaurus*

        Yeah, that’s a very specific situation altogether that has far less to do with emoticons than it does a (seemingly) crappy work environment.

      1. Elizabeth West*

        Yeah, we had those too, and they would send an email to everyone listing infractions they found and reminding people not to do those things. I thought that was how everybody did it.

    1. Bend & Snap*

      Compliance with clean desk policy sounds like a terrible use of time and resources unless there’s a really good reason for it. And I say this as someone with only a planner on my desk.

      1. AJHall*

        I don’t mind the policy and I don’t mind the inspections; it’s the twee-ness of the emoticons that does my head in.

        I also tend to see emoticons in emails as an (ineffective) way of someone saying something they know is offensive/confrontational and then trying to throw a veil of plausible deniability over themselves; they are the “Hey! Don’t be so oversensitive! I was only joking!” of text-based expression.

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I don’t mean to be rude, but it sounds like there may be bigger communication issues where you work than the emoticon use. Most places I’ve worked where people use emoticons, they’re not used as a passive-aggressive shiv. If that’s the default interpretation where you work, then that’s kind of alarming.

      2. Malibu Stacey*

        Since AJ Hall mentioned “compliance”, I am pretty sure she’s referring to a similar policy we have a t my financial firm – we don’t leave data with our clients’ personally identifying info (like name, address, etc) on our desks, on the printer, or on an unlocked computer monitor.

        It doesn’t mean “make you’re throwing away your McDonald’s wrapper from lunch”

      3. Akcipitrokulo*

        Many years ago, when I was in completely different line of work, we got an email saying we were going to have an inspection so ensure desks were clear. With limited time I decided to dump in drawer. Unfortunately it was still.full from the last time we had an inspection…

      4. Lora*

        In R&D we often have to lock up our notebooks and not leave them out where anyone walking by could glimpse our IP. And they vastly prefer that you keep things like batch records and such locked away where a passing auditor can’t peek at them, so those had to be in a drawer. Current employer addresses this by keeping everything 100% electronic, so all my desk holds now is reference books, a little plastic award for a drug I worked on, a coveted stash of Sharpies and a picture of my last vacation.

    2. Amber T*

      Definitely specific, and also that way of conveying fail is pretty condescending. Maybe condescending isn’t the right word, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. What’s wrong with an email/note saying what’s improper? If a piece of paper is needed to show what specifically is wrong, just leave a post it. That whole thing just seems icky.

      1. TootsNYC*

        For the desk-compliance team, this is probably much more useful. They have a bunch of papers with a symbol on them that means “clean-desk fail,” and they just drop it on the “dirty” desks as they pass.

        I suppose they could use words, but those would annoy people too.

    3. TootsNYC*

      I don’t think it’s an emoticon if it’s not in a digital medium.

      The frowny face on a piece of paper is classroom.

    4. Breda*

      Yeah, it’s definitely POSSIBLE to use smileys passive-aggressively (as that “fail” sounds!) but it’s definitely not the only or even the primary interpretation. I use it often in business emails to convey “I am happy about this” or “This is a gentle joke.” But only with people I know, and no more than once per email.

      1. nonymous*

        I have one coworker who thinks smileys are PA. Of course he’s the one that needs the most praise and kudos for getting routine tasks done (and gets grumpy when called on out on inaccurate/low quality results, which basically happens anytime he doesn’t have extremely detailed direction).

        the rest of us use the smiley to convey jokes and/or generic happiness.

      2. veggiewolf*

        I sometimes use them in place of parentheticals:

        “Our third round of UAT is complete, with no failures. :)”
        “Our third round of UAT is (finally) complete, with no failures.”

        On my team, and (mostly) at my company, both are par for the course.

    5. BF50*

      I would not say they are most commonly used passive-aggressively. I agree that this is very specific to your work culture (which sounds a bit toxic.)

      A quick scan of smiley faces in my email pulls up things like:
      “Please process. :)” From someone who sends probably 50 “please process” emails a day.
      “Oops, wrong deal. :)”
      “Thanks! We are always happy to help. :)”
      “FYI :)” From someone forwarding payment advice.

      The closest I found to snarky:
      When my coworker sent me something along the lines of “Customer X sent in a PO with problem Y again today, just like yesterday.” Before my real response I sent her “Well, you looked bored this morning… ;)”
      I emailed a coworker about the next steps to addressing a problem he responded “This is actually Joe’s account. Good luck team! :)” Which could be read as either friendly, passive aggressive, or joking sarcastic. My read was the third, but YMMV*.

      *I would not put YMMV in a professional email. Ever. So I guess I do draw a line somewhere.

      1. AJHall*

        I think there’s a lot in the point someone made about the initiation of emoticon use in a particular chain going from top down. It’s hard to give specific examples but if senior person has to send an email to a junior person saying, essentially, “look, we can’t have a repetition of yesterday. Here’s what needs to happen if similar circumstances occur again” and doesn’t use an emoticon, then if the junior person goes, “Sure, chief ;)” there’s a real mismatch of tone there which does not inspire confidence that the message has been received and understood.

    6. Specialk9*

      You… You’re kidding. Your work mandates desk cleaning, then Moms you about said cleaning? Wtf mate?! That’s terrible. I would want to Hulk smash all kinds of things, and people.

      1. only acting normal*

        Clear/clean desk policies aren’t about how hygienic the desk are (usually!). They’re used in jobs that handle sensitive data, whether that’s people’s personal data or something classified by the government or trade secrets. “Clear desk” means you have to lock things away out of sight overnight, or if you go away from your desk for any length of time (while colleagues are there to oversee what you leave out), or if you leave your desk at all if you’re alone. It means your desk must be clear of non-sensitive papers too so your colleagues/security don’t have to check through all of them to see if you’ve left anything sensitive mixed in.

  6. Been there*

    I think the advent of IM communications in business has blurred this line. It’s more common place to receive an IM with with an emoticon, which I think spread to internal emails.

    I very rarely see them on external communications though.

    1. Amy*

      I would only use them externally with people I am already friendly with, and even then sparingly. At my last job I worked with a lot of volunteers. Some that I worked closely with would either send or be the recipient of an occasional :). I even sent one once or twice to our board chair but only after she did it originally.

    2. Amber T*

      Oh I forgot about IMs. I do use them in email occasionally, but IM is a bit more frequent. We’re not allowed to use IM for “specific work related” purposes anyway (it’s more of – “are you free to discuss the Teapots file?” or “do you know when Jane will be back in the office?”). A lot of the time, if someone thanks me for doing something (or if I thank someone else), the quick response is a smiley face. Wouldn’t do that in an email, but the quick smiley face just conveys “no problem” or “you’re welcome.”

  7. JoanLynne*

    In my office, it’s sort of an unofficial rule that it depends on the type of communication. We use Skype for 90% of our day-to-day communication, while emails are more formal, and are typically used to “loop in” other departments or clients. Skype = internal communication = emojis are fine. Email = public facing = emojis not typically used.

    1. Berry*

      Yep, similar here – we use Slack it’s so easy to reply to a messages with a quick thumbs up emoji or some other kind of emoji reaction! I don’t think I’ve seen anything in email beyond maybe “:)” though.

    2. High Score!*

      Yeah, I work for a big corporation and they remind us periodically that emails aren’t private. I would hate it if one of my emails was researched or referenced and it had an emoji in it. Occasionally, I’ve seen emails get forwarded to customers or those outside the group when they shouldn’t be. I wouldn’t want customers or upper management to see cute widdle emojis in my emails. Strikes me as very unprofessional.

      Save them for personal correspondence.

  8. Bend & Snap*

    I use them as described in the OP. It’s fine in my Fortune 500 tech company culture and can be helpful in defining tone when there are politics at play.

    We have Skype for Business and all associated emojis for IMs and some of those are really creepy. Like there’s a heart one but when you send it to someone, it beats.

    1. Not a Real Giraffe*

      Yes, and there’s another one that actually vomits up a green substance. So unnecessary, Skype!

    2. Earl of Grey*

      Uugh Skype! Ran into a problem when IMing a colleague something about a 401(K). Unfortunately, (k) inserts a kissing emoji. Super awkward!

    3. Specialk9*

      The beating heart in WhatsApp weirds me out. It feels like having someone whisper in my ear “I’m going to brick you into the wall in my wine cellar”… even though I know I’m crossing two Poe stories. But ugh creepy.

  9. Language Lover*

    It’s like swearing at work–“know your audience.”

    I won’t use them with outsiders. Or higher ups. Or even some colleagues.

    I will use them with people who use them first. Or who give the vibe of being emoji/emoticon-friendly. And I will usually wait until I’ve established myself as a “serious professional” before I throw in a ;) or a :) so they know it’s not me being unprofessional but rather me just warming up a bit. Honestly, sometimes emoticons are the only way my rather neutral self expresses emotion.

    But let’s face it, Microsoft Office Outlook converts my =p and my ;) and my :( so clearly they’ve entered a semi-respectful realm in my professional environments.

    1. Lily Rowan*

      Yeah, I think email now is basically equivalent to talking out loud. So with higher-ups, I only talk to them in a setting where I’ve prepared my remarks, and I only send them formal emails. The colleague who I just spent 20 minutes talking about my weekend might get a smiley face in an email.

    2. shep*

      Same–I’ll use them with colleagues when they use them first, but sparingly. I’m pretty quiet and keep to myself at work, so I feel like it’s a nice way for me to mirror some friendly behavior back to that person, so even if I don’t see them that much in the hallway, they at least realize that I’m approachable and laid back.

    3. Kim Possible*

      I have a coworker who ALWAYS ends her emails with, “thank you! :)”. I find myself using emoticons way more frequently with her than I would with others!

  10. Amber Rose*

    I think it depends on the emoticon. A :) or ;) is useful for avoiding unintentional sarcasm. I get them a lot from our customers and suppliers.

    I would hesitate to use xD or =P or -_- or orz or anything like that though. Those emoticons are just decoration and don’t really serve any other purpose. I’d stick to the basic ones that just clarify tone.

    1. Amber Rose*

      As a side note, I use Mozilla Thunderbird as my email client at work and it does not interpret emotes. It took me a rather long time to figure out why so many people ended their emails with J, which is what a :) becomes when I get it.

      1. CMart*

        THAT’S WHAT A J IS???

        I just assumed there was something about people’s cell phone keyboards that made the “j” easy to slip up and hit on your way to the “send” button.

        1. Amber Rose*

          Hahaha, I thought the same thing! But no, it’s just that Thunderbird parses a smiley as a J for no apparent reason.

          1. Dulf*

            In Outlook, the :) gets turned into an actual smiley using the Wingdings font, so the glyph for the Wingdings smiley must be associated with J.

            1. BF50*

              I believe the J only appears when outlook has converted the :) into an actual smiley. If you convert it back to just a :), then you don’t get the J.

    2. Purplesaurus*

      I argue those emoticons do serve a purpose, but it’s probably not one you need in professional communications.

    3. Government Worker*

      My coworkers and I use :/ occasionally, too. Usually where the exasperation conveyed is not at a person, like “I was hoping to have this done today but the query I started two hours ago is still running. :/”

      We don’t use IM here, at least not in my department, but I do a lot of work with people on other floors and sometimes end up emailing back and forth pretty informally in lieu of IM, and emoticons creep in. I’d never use them in more formal emails, though.

  11. gnarlington*

    My rule is I don’t use them unless they have used them in an email to me first, then I know it’s OK. Even then I do it pretty sparingly because I know it can come across the wrong way sometimes.

    Then again, I use Slack with one of my work teams and all we do is sent emojis and GIFs to each other. So I might not be the best judge of this.

  12. Wannabe Disney Princess*

    It completely depends. I have a few people in my organization I’ll use them with and there are others that I wouldn’t. Same with a select group of outsiders. However, we work together so much with them they are practically part of the company.

  13. AdAgencyChick*

    Sparingly, and never, EVER to the client. Internal only.

    And if you use an emoticon after you’ve just made a harsh comment, you go on my sh!t list.

  14. Definitely NOT a T-Rex*

    I *have* to in my current org because it’s so easy for people to misunderstand the tone of emails. I mean, I don’t go crazy with them or anything, but they do have their uses.

    1. Wannabe Disney Princess*

      I’ve had people reply back with variations of “Sorry! Didn’t mean to offend!” when I wasn’t upset AT ALL that it’s become necessary for me to add them.

      Because this gets tiring:
      “Sorry! Didn’t mean to upset you.”
      “Nope! No problem at all. Just wanted to clarify/explain/let you know/etc.”
      “Ah, thanks. Haha.”
      “You’re welcome.”

  15. Statler von Waldorf*

    I’m on team “nope, never use them in a professional environment,” but then again I’m also on team “get those damn kids off my lawn” so it’s possible that I’m just old, out of touch, and cranky about it.

    1. MechanicalPencil*

      I’m one of the youngest in my department and I don’t use emoticons at all. However my manager does frequently, and it always weirds me out just a bit. If I could converse in meme however, it would be more entertaining.

      1. KR*

        As someone who used to have her own office and staff and had literally a wall of memes (and encouraged her staff to make memes about work to work on Photoshop skills) I can assure you that work place communication via meme is hilarious and great.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          I once made a series of memes related to our travel season about best practices on a slow day. I was pleasantly surprised to realize my boss (a former high school history teacher who took “don’t smile until December” into his new job) actually loved them! I got to make a presentation in our staff meeting with slides like “Shut up and take my receipts!”

  16. Rogue*

    I think they can be helpful if used sparingly. I found them most useful when corresponding with people I’ve never met but have to talk to on a frequent basis.

  17. bunniferous*

    In my field they absolutely come in handy as long as used sparingly and thoughtfully. Sometimes I have to communicate things that seem harsher than they are and a well placed smile helps the medicine go down. As with anything else, know your audience.

    1. bunniferous*

      OTOH my boss and I text each other and we use emoticons freely and liberally. I never dread a text from the office!

    2. AndersonDarling*

      Yep. I use them when I find a mistake in someone’s work and I’m asking them to make the correction. A smiley face conveys that I’m not mad, I just need the problem fixed. But I only use them laterally, I don’t send smileys to managers.

  18. Murphy*

    I was working with a department that really Dropped the Ball on a project which lead to me having to be the bearer of bad news that I had no hand in deciding (and was that department’s job) to a bunch of people who were understandably pissed off, and when I reached out to them to clarify this ridiculous thing they wanted me to do, the department rep just responded with “Please :).” I’ve never been more angry about an emoji. I would have been mad about the whole situation anyway, but when I tell that story, I always say, “AND THEY DID IT WITH A SMILEY FACE.”

    In moderation, in non-“I’m crappy at my job and are making you do it for me” kind of situations, I think they can be ok.

  19. Aurion*

    I work with external vendors and sales on a daily basis, and it’s really not a big deal. I send and receive them sporadically in both internal and external emails. It’s usually to accent a particularly strong bit of news. There are :) when someone goes above and beyond for something, :( when delivering a bit of bad news, etc.

    It’s not egregious, but it’s not super uncommon either. That said, :) and :( are the only ones I’ve seen in email; anything else looks too cutesy. But on the internal IM, anything goes.

  20. Kelly L.*

    I use them internally, and only the relatively simple ones that will cooperate with almost everyone’s device. The simple smiley, :), everyone will know what that is, whether their email program translates it into an emoji or leaves it as is.

  21. Susiedoesbooks*

    I’m with the majority here. I use them sparingly in my in-house emails to team members, knowing my audience. I never use them in correspondence to customers or vendors, unless we have an ongoing relationship that I know it wouldn’t be seen as unprofessional.

  22. Llama Wrangler*

    I use them internally, especially when emailing the remote team I manage.

    With clients, it’s done sparingly but it is done. We are a small business and being, warm, friendly and local is part of our charm and one of our selling points. I send people a lot of reports, invoices and long emails explaining those reports/invoices and various aspects of their accounts with us. Throwing in an emoji now and then with someone I have built a rapport with helps bring levity to what would otherwise be a long and boring bunch of words. Every account is different though – I might not do it for the accounting or architectural firm clients but the ski resort and the client that builds grow rooms for the marijuana industry are a different story.

  23. Ramona Flowers*

    A side effect of using these: smiley faces get turned into a J when I view email on my mobile so I now interpret the letter J as a smile.

    1. Kelly L.*

      I wondered about this–I’ve gotten emails with “J” too. And here I thought the :) was universal!

    2. This Daydreamer*

      THANK YOU!! I have been confused by emails ending with a random J from my coworkers for way too long!.

  24. BellsofShoreditch*

    I think a few, rare, well-placed smiley faces can be ok, especially in an informal communication channel like a work chat app.

    I don’t think smiley faces have much place in emails. One of my co-workers inserts a smiley face into every email that contains a request of someone. To me, it looks insincere and coy.

    1. AJHall*

      Thanks: “insincere and coy” are exactly the words to describe it. If the person sending the email wouldn’t make the request in the form “Pwitty pweas wid a cherry on top” then they shouldn’t do it in emoticon.

      1. Cordelia*

        A smile emoticon represents a smile, it doesn’t represent baby talk. Insincere and coy are what you choose to read in it.

        1. AJHall*

          If someone can’t make a simple request like “Please can I have the witness statements on my desk by 5.30 at the latest” without thinking they have to put a smiley in it, then they might as well be using baby-talk. It’s a particularly bad practice when young women do it, because it looks as if they’re apologising for being in the workplace at all.

          1. Alex*

            Again, I think you’re reading more into it than is necessary, and projecting your own feelings onto correspondence that was probably meant sincerely. And I wouldn’t judge women for using them any more than I judge men (which, for the most part, is not at all).

            1. Marillenbaum*

              Exactly. I wouldn’t add an emoticon to a request, and I would encourage a junior staffer not to do it, because when you’re junior it can be unwise to convey a sense of apology for making an ordinary work request (like prefacing the same request with “Sorry to bother you”). In general, I believe that softening via emoticon works better from the top down than bottom up.

            2. AJHall*

              The question was whether they were unprofessional in a business context. My answer is, “Yes, hugely.”

          2. Cordelia*

            I agree, those sorts of requests don’t need an emoticon, but I don’t think adding one makes the request particularly “coy”.

  25. asfjkl*

    I’m a huge fan of the when I want people to know the message has been received but there’s really no need for additional comment on my end.

  26. phedre*

    I use them sporadically in emails to coworkers and very, very rarely to external people who I have an existing strong relationship with. I think a :-) once in a while to colleagues is completely fine as long as you don’t overdo it. But I work in the nonprofit sector in a fairly informal (yet still professional) organization, so YMMV.

  27. Former Admin turned Project Manager*

    I pretty much only use them on email if I know the person really well. I did have an external person with whom I could exchange emoticons, but I had a lot of contact with her and it had a tone of relatability (it was during my admin days, and she was the EA to a close contact of my boss- lots of “how are we going to work our magic so that we can make this impossible task from our respective bosses happen?” sort of way).

    I’ll use a fact or a thumbs up with my boss in IMs or texts, but not with anyone else in our chain of command, but I know it’s OK because we were friends already before she became my boss. Sometimes I use a thumbs-up as short hand for “Sounds good” or “understood” on our internal IM network just to close a conversation.

      1. Susiedoesbooks*

        I literally just got an email from our CTO that said “Thank you ”

        I’m not offended. Nor do I think he’s unprofessional. I feel like he appreciated the information I gave him that he asked for, he understood what I was saying and was appreciative of my fast response.

  28. Liz*

    I’m in higher ed. I do sometimes use emoticons in emails, but only with people I already know well (online or offline). We’ve got a chat client too, and we all use emoticons there – that’s much more informal though.

  29. Fifty Foot Commute*

    Emoticons go down, not up, and usually not out. That’s my rule of thumb at least, and it seems to work.

  30. Dust Bunny*

    What? Yes. Yes, it is. Don’t do this. And this is from somebody who is not going to win any maturity awards.

  31. Lauren*

    I find myself not wanting to ever use smiley faces. I will use memes, will send a youtube link like this when someone reschedules a client call (, but not smiley faces. As a woman, I don’t think I should be forced to extra friendly with that stuff in order to not come across as curt, which basic emails like ‘Hi X, Attached please find the deck we will discuss today. Talk to you soon. – Lauren’ is apparently too abrasive of a communication style. So I will occasionally add a ‘!’, but most of the time – I just stop cc-ing the men and women who make these comments to me and send only to the client.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      That’s an excellent point. When I was in higher ed, there was a strong cultural preference for softening language (ie, “If you could”, or adding a benign social formulaic at the beginning). Now that I’m in government, I find my emails have become a lot more to-the-point, in line with the overall office writing style. For instance, instead of “Hey! Here’s the Teapot Analysis you asked for; let me know if you want me to make any changes.” I’ll have a subject that reads “For Review: Teapot Analysis”, and the body of the email is simply a link to the document. Now that I do this, I find it really preferable.

      1. Amey*

        See, that last example would be so rude in my workplace! You would never do it except with a very close colleague, usually when you’ve essentially just had the conversation that you’re not putting in the email… It’s annoying because you can waste a lot of time crafting lots of these silly little emails saying ‘I’m sending you this thing which you want’ but it looks off if you don’t.

      2. Specialk9*

        I only got curt orders by email from men, usually ex military, and every time got a spike of irritation and then have to remind myself of cultural differences. So glad I don’t deal with that any more.

  32. NW Mossy*

    This is very much dependent on both the work culture and your relationship with your recipient. I’ll use the occasional smiley with another manager in my unit or someone I manage, but otherwise, it just doesn’t feel like the right fit.

    That said, within work IM I’m a big fan of the waving-hi emoji – it feels like the right response to a peer’s casual “Hi!” to get my attention. I am not, however, a fan of the automatic conversion of characters in parentheses into emojis, given the number of tax code citations get sprinkled into our internal communications. Why a kiss emoji is needed in workplace IM is beyond me.

    1. BF50*

      ew. It’s not. And this from the woman who sent a smiley face to someone in the C-suite.

      (Just once, in a very specific situation. I swear, I am a grown up.)

  33. Fabulous*

    I’ll use them sparingly at work. I actually find them helpful with interpreting intentions in emails. If I think something can be interpreted multiple ways when read, I’ll add in a smiley mainly to provide some clarity so I don’t sound annoyed or angry about something when I’m not.

    On a separate but related note, I also use memes at work. But that’s kind of just become an inside joke among 2-3 people :)

  34. Rivakonneva*

    I’m in academia, and I will use the :) or :( in emails or listserv messages, but that’s pretty much it. I try to use them sparingly, but admit to going a tad overboard once or twice in a way-off-tangent listerv thread. Especially when we’re trying to tell the ‘most ill mannered student of all’ stories.


  35. Akcipitrokulo*

    I’m senior to new person and am training/supervising. We’d got to know each other a bit when she sent me a note of a solution she’d found to something we were both investigating to ask if this would work, and it was really good.

    I replied “AWESOME! :D”

    Yeah, that was appropriate to emphasise I was really impressed (and said so in person too).

  36. Allie Oops*

    Totally depends on context. When the admin jots off a quick e-mail to tell me to stop by because someone brought in bagels, I say thanks and tack on a smiley face. When a technician requests information about product XYZ, I avoid emoticons.

  37. Cordelia*

    It depends on the audience, generally, but I find emoticons are helpful for conveying tone, which is all too easily lost in text communications.

    1. Snark*

      I agree that tone is hard to convey in text, but it’s not impossible, and it is preferable.

      1. Amber Rose*

        Why is it preferable?

        I feel like this goes back to the debate on Mrs. LastName vs FirstName. Just because something used to be how it was done doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be done differently now. Tradition is not a good reason. So I’m curious if there is a good reason for resisting this aside from “we never did it that way before.”

        All these people rolling their eyes at emoticons/emojis, are you doing it because you have a reason to, or if you think about it, is it because you resent things that are different? Are you doing the metaphorical version of telling kids to get off your lawn? Some introspection here is going to be helpful.

        1. Dulf*

          And for that matter – in cases where communication is professional but doesn’t need to meet any minimum standards, like most everyday emails or Skype chats between coworkers, is spending unnecessary time on word choice, phrasing, tone, etc. really preferable to using an emoticon to signal the same things?

      2. Emma the Strange*

        If it’s harder to do, then it takes longer. Why is that a good use of my time if I’m just, for example, exchanging informal emails with coworkers?

  38. KR*

    We use Lync for work instant messaging (I’m in a remote location so I can’t just go visit someone and a phone call just seems so….. Extreme.) and it has some fun emojis that we use with regularity but don’t over use. I tend to use a smily emoji for a quick “Thank you” email or something but only with my team or people I am friendly with at work (never on communication higher ups or other departments see). I agree that it’s very industry, company, and department specific.

  39. SL #2*

    My stance on emojis/emoticons in business email is that it all depends on audience and context. Sending a smiley face of a gif to a member of my team? Totally fine, I don’t even think twice about it, because that’s our office culture. When it comes to external partners or funders, I am very careful. There are some program officers that we work with who love emojis and I know that as long as I use them sparingly and appropriately, a smiley face won’t go the wrong way. Other program officers, not so much…

  40. Jojo*

    In mental health field here, and we use them all the time with coworkers. Granted, there’s also kind of a culture of gallows humor, so maybe it goes along with that. This morning, on our daily email with our client schedules for the day, my boss attached a “this is Sparta” meme. For helping us get to the weekend.

  41. self employed*

    In my 100% remote job, it was a way for the whole team to communicate friendliness. I wasn’t I favor of it at first, but in a largely email/chat-based environment, it made a big morale difference.

  42. Look, a bee!*

    I’m seeing people getting emoticons and emojis a little confused here: an emoticon is created with the characters on your keyboard, like a smiley face :) whereas an emoji is an actual small picture as seen on Facebook and whatsapp etc, such as the ubiquitous aubergine or heart eyes face. I’d never use an emoji as the insertion of an actual picture seems off in a textual work correspondence, whereas an emoticon doesn’t seem as big a deal, depending on context. For example I wouldn’t use one in a cover letter or an email to my boss, but I might add one to a thank you email or message to a peer. I don’t think either are inherently unprofessional, though if there’s any question in one’s mind or any hesitation at all, err on the side of caution and refrain.

    If a message seems to need an emoticon for the tone to be clear, reword it to let your words convey the tone. I also wonder if this is a gendered issue: often, I see women afraid to send emails that seem to be harsh in tone and add a smiley as a softener, whereas most men I know would have no qualms appearing assertive (and yes it seems that what women feel is too harsh is often embraced as simply being assertive in men. Not all men/women). It’s a good idea to build up your confidence in making your point without feeling the need to make it blatantly clear you’re being friendly/jokey.

    1. Murphy*

      Sometimes you’ll type :) and it will be automatically converted to a smiley face, so there can be a fine line.

  43. De Minimis*

    We use emoticons somewhat frequently, more for casual work communication. I think it’s fine in moderation, and when it’s just basic back and forth, FYIs, etc.

    We also use Slack and that’s when things get a little wild with the emoticons and the GIFs….

    1. NewBoss2016*

      Your comment about getting wild with the emoticons reminded me of when we had to use a web-based email system for one day while IT switched our whole email program. Someone figured out the system had the entire emoji database (like what would be on a cellphone) and sent a department-wide announcement. It started with a pizza emoji and the rest of the day was reply-all’s only written in emoticons.

  44. Cheesecake 2.0*

    I originally would have said “Nope never” but a few months ago, my great-great-grand boss started using them in her emails occasionally and since then they seem to pop up in other people’s emails too. My absolute favorite episode of emoji/emoticon use was when the great-great-grand boss had to review an urgent proposal overnight and sent an email at midnight that said “Don’t worry, I’ll get it done by 8 am *ghost emoji* *skull emoji* *sleeping face emoji*” I laughed so hard!

  45. Fake Eleanor*

    It’s amazing how much this discussion parallels whether or not it’s OK to use exclamation points — though that argument is probably 10-20 years older.

    One thing that matters in both circumstances is the formality of the medium (which will vary by office). There’s a lot of linguistic research that indicates that electronic communication, even though it’s written, has a lot of characteristics of spoken language, which is almost always more informal than writing.

    Depending on how you use them, email, IM, and Slack can function more like a conversation than a document, and things like exclamation points, emoji, and emoticons make conversation feel more natural. Of course, if you’re in an office where email is more formal by default, those conversational aspects are less appropriate in that medium.

    1. Murphy*

      Haha, I catch myself overusing exclamation point sometimes because I’m afraid of coming across as unfriendly. A lot of my emails are short answers to informational questions, and email is the only way I interact with a ton of people, so I don’t have much time to make an impression. Probably also why I shy away from emoticons most of the time. (Also just not usually my thing.)

      1. Kim Possible*

        “Haha, I catch myself overusing exclamation point sometimes because I’m afraid of coming across as unfriendly.”

        This is so me! I try not to overuse them, but I really feel like it softens the tone without sacrificing looking unprofessional.

    2. Amey*

      Yes, I agree. I use emoticons and exclamation points regularly though sparingly – I do see my Thanks! as being much more friendly than my Thank you. In my workplace, I think it is, there’s almost a passive aggressive nature to not including that exclamation point. I work at a university and communicate with lots of people across multiple departments who don’t necessarily know me and often will only communicate with me via email. Sometimes I’m delivering messages that are critical or that people won’t want to hear and the smiley face or more cheerful thank you makes it extra clear that I’m not mad. Again I wouldn’t use this with higher ups that I don’t know well – but even there I have definitely used the occasional smiley face with a grandboss (with my boss all the time.) We do a lot of our work via email though and much of it is quick and informal – this debate honestly feels a bit like saying you should never smile in a meeting or something. You have to judge it right (and there are lots of unspoken rules and politics in my workplace) but I think it can be an extremely useful tool. I think that referring to all email as ‘professional correspondence’ makes it sound much more formal than it often is – in my work, I feel that I’m always professional but definitely sometimes informal (and would be out of step with my institutional culture and less effective if I wasn’t.) I’m fairly young (early 30s) in more or less middle management and with quite a lot of seniority and name recognition so that might make a difference.

      1. AJHall*

        “Sometimes I’m delivering messages that are critical or that people won’t want to hear and the smiley face or more cheerful thank you makes it extra clear that I’m not mad. ”

        Do you really think a message like “You really mustn’t use that sort of language when talking about clients, even in internal emails” sounds better as “You really mustn’t use that sort of language when talking about clients, even in internal emails ;)”? It completely undercuts the point of the criticism.

        1. Marillenbaum*

          Not quite. I think in particular, a phrase like “really mustn’t” reads as inherently scolding; the emoticon is for cases with more ambiguity of tone. So, “Next time, send the Teapot Analysis to Steve before you send it to Steve’s boss”. In general, it’s appended as a signal that this is coaching, rather than criticism. I wouldn’t do it personally (I prefer to do my coaching face-to-face for precisely this reason), but it can work.
          Emoticons are a tool of communication, and I’m loathe to write them off entirely, especially since pearl-clutching antipathy is, in my experience, rather a niche view.

          1. Amey*

            Yes, it’s exactly this sort of message that I’m talking about – where someone has made an understandable mistake but they really can’t do it again. But I’m in an area where it’s part of my job to deliver that sort of message to lots of different people that I have to work regularly with but don’t manage. So it’s a fine balance. I completely understand that in a different workplace this approach wouldn’t work but in mine (and some others I’ve worked in), it’s absolutely expected. I’m in the UK, I do think there might be a bit of cultural difference.

              1. Amey*

                Interesting! Clearly the lesson from this (passionate) thread is to know your workplace culture – it’s often one of the hardest learning curves when starting a new job, I think. On the emoticon thing, there are definitely whole departments that I wouldn’t use them with (not necessarily the ones you’d expect, universities are so weird) and that’s a judgment you can only make with experience so always best to proceed with caution.

                1. AJHall*

                  I think there’s a lesson to be learned about being unsettled by emoticon use possibly indicating a more profound unease with unhealthy communication patterns in general, of which inappropriate emoticon use is a symptom not a cause.

  46. rageismycaffeine*

    Emoticons, yes. Emoji, no. In moderation, yes. I have a coworker who uses them in Every. Single. Email. (she also has a terrible tendency to reply to all and THEN use a smiley, so that makes it worse.) IMO, that does make her look unprofessional.

    I also generally will only use them with people I know well, and generally on the same level as me in an org chart. You’d never see me with a smiley face in an email to a university vice chancellor, but to my coworkers, probably.

  47. Taylor Swift*

    Interesting to see the “No, absolutely not, how could you even think of this” reactions. It is so clearly something that depends on industry, company culture, team culture, context, and individual personality.

    1. Kim Possible*

      Absolutely! People at my office would laugh if anyone told them to “absolutely not ever use emoticons.” I’ve seen all of my coworkers use them occasionally, but my boss actually probably uses them more than anyone. He often sends solely a thumbs up emoji in response to emails.

  48. Another Commenter*

    One of my tasks is coordinating volunteers, so I will definitely sprinkle in emoticons and exclamation points (occasionally even multiple exclamation points!) for a more friendly and upbeat vibe.

    I will also absolutely use emoticons in a response to a higher-up if they use it first.

    1. Kim Possible*

      I’m a big fan of explanation points. I try not to overuse them, but I often prefer ending an email with “thank you and have a great afternoon!” over, “thank you and have a great afternoon.” Many of the customers that I communicate with use explanation points, so I’ve never been fearful of looking unprofessional!

  49. Stop That Goat*

    I’m on band No. I may occasionally use one when interacting with a coworker who I’m on particularly friendly terms with and 0nly in instant messaging. I’d never use them with a customer (even if they did) nor with the vast majority of my coworkers. I would view someone who uses them a lot as whimsical and a bit silly. Nothing wrong with those qualities but it doesn’t read professional to me either.

    1. Marillenbaum*

      I suppose of you’re working with Elspeth Tascioni from The Good Wife, it’s possible to be whimsical, a bit silly, and also a stone cold professional (though personally, I’m aiming a little more for Diane Lockhart).

  50. NewBoss2016*

    I am in what I would consider a pretty rigid and conservative field and I get a surprising amount of emojis from clients. I only have two long-term clients whom I work with on a daily basis that I will occasionally send a smiley face to, but that is only as a reciprocation of their emoji. I personally refrain for many reasons, one being that I am young-ish and don’t want to possibly come off as juvenile. I also work on things that are more often than not forwarded up to the client’s chain of command, so I try to stay friendly but completely professional so the higher ups don’t think I am goofy without having the context of our relationship. I will say that when my clients use them it feels personal and friendly, yet not terribly professional–not that I care.

    1. Amber Rose*

      I do have to agree with someone up-thread who said they should roll down-hill. The more authority you have, the less likely a smiley is going to cause problems. And then in before out. I wouldn’t use them with clients who don’t use them with me, just because I’d hate to make the company look bad if the client is not receptive to that kind of thing.

  51. tigerlily*

    I think it varies by field, by organization, by coworker, by type of correspondence, by relationship with client/vendor, by whether the moon is full that day. It’s like asking whether it’s appropriate to refer to your clients by their first name, or whether it’s appropriate to wear tshirts to work, or whether it’s appropriate to curse in the office. It depends. No one can answer your question except for you based on whatever circumstances you were in.

  52. Kat M.*

    Yep, totally depends on the field and type of correspondence.

    I’m writing a second email to a group of volunteers, attempting to cajole them into filling out a survey that they were asked to complete three weeks ago, and I REALLY need them to do it but they’re volunteers and I don’t want them to freak out about the fact that they forgot and ghost on me out of embarrassment? Gentle humor and an emoji.

    I’m sending out a press release about a program expanding to a new neighborhood? Asking the leaders of a local faith community for support? Inviting the principal of a local middle school to sit down with me for a conversation about the special needs of adolescents in our community? Noooo.

    The work I’m doing is probably 90% relationship-building. I know two people in the same role in the community. One’s a former military officer in his 60s who I’ve literally never seen not wearing a suit. The other is a nerdy 40-year-old woman who wears novelty purses to match her hobbies and fandoms. I need to make sure they both feel comfortable relating to me. If I don’t accomplish this, I have failed. You can probably guess who gets emojis and Doctor Who references from me and who doesn’t. ;)

  53. Purple snowdrop*

    I’m amazed. We use them quite a bit within our team. I had no idea we were such outliers. I would think it’s a UK/US thing but I recognise a good few UK people saying no.

  54. De Minimis*

    The HR person at my former job would always have them in her e-mails when the deadline was approaching for timesheet approval, usually stuff like a nervous looking smiley face checking its watch.

  55. SleeplessInLA*

    I find it perfectly normal to use emoticons in work emails but I work in the creative field. For reference of my office environment- I have a co-worker that regularly attaches sad dog photos to emails asking a favor and it doesn’t raise an eyebrow.

    Conversely, a close friend of mine works in finance and was appalled over the amount of exclamations(!) and smiley’s in a work email thread I shared with him. We still chuckle about it– and he would still NEVER do such a thing– so in short, go with whatever the cultural norm is at your job. It should be pretty easy to feel out whether it would be taboo or no big deal.

    1. Zip Zap*

      Yeah, in tech and entertainment, it’s pretty normal. And if you’re good at it, people enjoy it. Depending on the company, of course.

  56. Elise*

    This is definitely a know your audience thing. I have colleagues who I would add a smiley for, but probably not the director of my organization. At this point, graphics are such a common part of a lot of people’s online communications outside of work that I don’t think a smiley in an email (or a :(, :/ every once in a while) is a big deal if you know the recipient isn’t formal about email. Save the stickers and animated gifs for personal messages.

    I did have a boss once, when I was just out of college (and she was as well) who apparently thought that a male colleague of mine and I were an item. We were not, and just would eat lunch together on occasion as we were the same age and had just graduated from the same school. We were 5 minutes late returning ONCE and returned to printed out notes on our desk talking about how great it was that we were close, but we needed to come back from lunch on time, with smiley faces all throughout. It was so embarrassing, but there was a lot of hell no in that experience that had nothing to do with smiley faces.

  57. Noah*

    If you are still using the term “emoticons,” I would suggest that you’re not sufficiently up on this sort of technology to use it safely.

    1. Elsajeni*

      Or, you are, as several people in these comments have done, making a useful distinction between ASCII-character faces like :) and the wide array of actual tiny pictures you can type on your cell phone by calling the former emoticons and the latter emoji.

  58. AppleBlossom*

    I work in a hospital and one of my coworkers not only uses emoticons, but frequently adds entire backgrounds (Disney themed or cartoon themed) to the morning report she sends. When I first started working with her, I was mystified when she responded to a thank you email with a picture of unicorns. I didn’t know if it meant something or what! Now that I know, love, and respect her, I don’t even blink. In fact, many of the managers have adopted the same practice in select emails to certain people.

    I will say that this person is widely known to be one of the most competent on our staff. We also have a pretty warm culture and we work in psych, so we don’t really mind quirks. I think this is largely about your office culture.

  59. Anon Accountant*

    I use only the smiley face :) when emailing a client we have a good relationship with. And only after they’ve sent emails with an emoji or if they text me. Again we have a great working relationship first.

  60. Zip Zap*

    If they’re considered acceptable in your workplace, they do have a basic purpose. They can help you to communicate a warm tone while keeping your emails short. Examples:

    The scissors are on your desk. :-)
    No problem. :-)
    3/12 is good. :-)

    I think it’s a regional thing to some extent. They seem to be more acceptable on the west coast.

  61. Chaordic One*

    At my workplace we have this email virus screening software that deletes all emojis and all gifs before we ever get to see them. I get tons of emails where the signature includes a gif of some sort, but I’ve never seen the actual gif and have no idea of what it might be.

  62. ZucchiniBikini*

    I use smiley face emoticons occasionally when corresponding with clients I know very well / have worked with over an extended period of time. My clients themselves use emoticons rather more liberally, so I know I am not out of step with their norms. However, I would not see a scenario in which I would use an emoji or a gif in a professional communication (despite the fact that my personal correspondence is rife with them!)

  63. Face*

    People use the “:)” emoticon all the time in my workplace as a way to soften the tone of messages. A lot of managers do it, too. But then – these are only for internal emails to let people know it’s snack day or about a new instruction or whatever.

  64. Student*

    This is the kind of thing where one should take some cues from the people one corresponds with. That especially applies when communicating with bosses or more senior people, where it’s expected that you let them set the tone.

    If you’re the boss, you do what you want. If you aren’t the boss, try to match the boss’s frequency and usage style roughly. If you’re talking to co-workers, I’d still suggest matching what the boss does – use emoticons appropriate to the job you want, not the job you have. If you won’t go with that, then at least try to pay some attention to how much your co-worker uses them. It’s fine to throw an occasional emoticon at a colleague in most fields, but if your colleague never reciprocates, then they probably don’t view emoticons as a useful business communication tool in the same way the OP does.

    You don’t have to mirror other people exactly, but it’s a useful way to structure communications when you aren’t sure how something is received.

  65. Nico m*

    I think the rule of thumb is : imagine it were Oldene Tymes Beforr Ye Emaile and you were sending this message as a fax/letter/post- it note left on a desk.

    Would you consider drawing a smiley face?

    1. Zip Zap*

      Actually, people did use handwriting, fonts and images to convey emotion before email. How much you could do that at work probably depended on the office.

  66. Nico m*

    On further reflection, emoticons and emojis are good and necessary.

    But when they are good they arent necessary. And if necessary not good.

    For an informal message where your intent is clear, fine.

    But if you are using it to soften a message YOUR MESSAGE SUCKS AND YOU ARE A COWARD. ;)

  67. Amy*

    Yes to emoticons and no to emojis for me. Agree with Alison’s response here, a :) can be effective in communicating “this is meant warmly.”

  68. Airedale*

    Dying at this line:

    “If you receive a single smiley face emoticon in a professional email from a colleague, you’re highly unlikely to think, ‘Eeeewww. I used to think you were classy and professional, but in fact you appear to be an adolescent rube.'”

  69. Michel Tanguay*

    Back when emoticons did not exist, I would put stickers of the Spice Girls on my paperwork . All I can say is that I waited to be comfortable with my boss and be appreciated as an employee. It’s all about timing !

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