Editor's note: Inc.com columnist Alison Green answers questions about workplace and management issues -- everything from how to deal with a micromanaging boss to how to talk to someone on your team about body odor.
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 sometimes be taken the wrong way, I feel like it would be easier sometimes 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 or he or she has used them in an email to me. What are your thoughts?
Alison Green responds:
In most offices, they're fine in moderation. 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."
That assumes, of course, that the person isn't using five of them, or using them in every communication, or accompanying them with a message written in a pink font or Comic Sans, or so forth.
And lots of people use them the way you describe -- to ensure that a message isn't read with the wrong tone. As long as they're used sparingly, they can be a quick way to convey "this is intended warmly" when the message otherwise risks being read as cold or critical. Of course, it needs to be a message where that makes sense -- you can't send a diatribe about the terrible job your co-worker did on a project and put a smiley face at the end, as if that will magically make the message nicer.
Of course, as with anything, you want to be aware of your office culture; if you're in a workplace where emoticons are just Not Done, you risk coming across as fluffy or unprofessional if you use them. And you shouldn't use them in job search emails or other particularly formal contexts -- not only do they feel out of place there, but you should be putting enough time and thought into the wording of those messages that you don't need a smiley face for shorthand anyway. And if you do, that's probably a sign that you need to rewrite the message so that the tone is unambiguous without the aid of emoticons.
Want to submit a question of your own? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.