I am no champion of lost causes. Long ago I accepted the inevitability of reality television, SUVs, even the disappearance of green sauce from the condiment selection at Taco Bell. Why, then, do I rage on against emoticons? Those twee progeny of the communications revolution are harmless. They do nothing to ennoble human discourse, but neither do they appreciably coarsen it.
Still, emoticons bug the hell out of me. I hate the way they reduce the gloriously complex geography of human faces to a few crude lines and dots. I also resent their imputations of insensitivity. "I assume you lack the emotional intelligence to infer my attitude from mere words," the little buggers seem to say, "so I will help you with a device comprehensible to two-year-olds." Finally, I shudder whenever I see them--as I increasingly do--used in business correspondence. What does it say about a company when employees pepper their e-mail with the sort of juvenile glyphs common in MySpace chats? "This is to inform you that we have not yet received the order expected last week. >:-O" "To the best of my knowledge, Mr. Fenderbender played no role in the backdating of options. 0:-)" If this nonsense is going on in your business, you should stamp it out pronto.
Now when I say I am no champion of lost causes, that doesn't mean I'll never take a shot. So I hereby announce a (probably quixotic) campaign to banish emoticons. My plan is to subvert the reason for the devices' existence--instant, painfully dumbed-down communication--by substituting for them long, verbose paragraphs describing in detail what the displaced symbols look like and what they are meant to express.
So, for example, consider this e-mail message: "Dear Bob--Glad to hear you finally got around to joining the gym. I was running out of suckers to pound at racquetball." Those sentences would normally be annotated with a smiley symbol. I propose, however, following them with something like this: Picture if you will a colon: one tiny, perfect dot poised above its brother. Now imagine that colon transformed into a pair of eyes, bright and sparkling with mischief. From between those dots extends a hyphen. Yet screw up your eyes and…do you see it? A nose! Yes, a nose! Patrician in its straightness it dips toward the generous curve of a closing parenthesis. That parenthesis is a mouth, corners up-tilted in mirth. Viewed in sum, these marks compose a face whose expression of gentle amusement suggests the good humor intended in the previous remark.
I invite readers to create their own emoticon descriptors--the longer the better--and to use them whenever possible. By doing so, we will call attention to the vacuousness of these graphical nits and impel habitual users to reform. Standing strong and united, we will drive emoticons out of our e-mails and back onto the smocks of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) employees, where they belong.
(Note: This column refers only to ubiquitous emoticons: faces smiling, frowning, winking, and such. Wikipedia lists dozens of examples, some of them quite creative. I welcome any messages incorporating the symbols for scary bat or sad pope.)
Leigh Buchanan is an Inc. editor-at-large. She can be reached at email@example.com.
LEIGH BUCHANAN is an editor at large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture. @LeighEBuchanan