A few years ago, teaching a class on business writing to young PR professionals, I explained that emoticons or “smileys” had no place in emails to clients. Too cute, too casual, too lazy, I lectured. Now, smileys have crept into my own client emails to a somewhat embarrassing degree. I’m caught between the desire to avoid coming across like a cheerily demented teenager (OMG!!! ;>), and the fear that my emails are, well, boring and personality-free and could use a little smiley happiness.
Maybe I’d feel less dopey about the smileys if I knew that world leaders sprinkled their emails with expressive little ASCII faces. You know, someone like Hillary Clinton, but I suspect she has better things to do, or maybe doesn’t even write her own emails. A Google search didn’t turn up evidence of any big shots using emoticons except, weirdly, former IMF head Dominique Strauss-Kahn—who, The New York Times reported, sends emails from his BlackBerry “adorned with two smiley faces.”
Lacking a better role model for businesslike smiley usage, why keep doing it? We who slip into smileys fear that our dry humor or ironic little quips will be completely misunderstood by email recipients—so the smiley is a hedge, if you will, against a joke that tanks. Unless you regularly write for The New Yorker, it’s awfully hard to pull off irony and snark within the confines of an email. (I’m much funnier on the phone.) The first time a client mistakes your wisecrack for a slur on their person or product is the first time you’ll realize that a smiley can defuse the email tension.
However, I stand by my advice to the young PR people that excessive use of smileys (frownies, winkies, etc.) is a crutch, makes you come off like a 12-year-old, and highlights the writer’s lack of interest in crafting a message that expresses what a smiley does. (Use your words, kids!) One should be able to get across a smile, a smirk, or a wink with language.
Tina Fey wrote all of the brilliant, snarky, deadpan Bossypants without resorting to a single smiley. Following in her excellent footsteps, I will now go cold turkey. Right after I finish this blog post. ;-]