A couple of months ago, a business associate of mine ended a text message to me with a funny emoticon (AKA smiley). As it turns out, he had intended to send it to his daughter, but sent it to me accidentally. Well, that inspired me, so, with considerable help from Google, I discovered how to add emoticon capability to my text messaging function of my phone. Since then, I have been treating my friends and family members to my inspiring collection of pictures. So far, my business colleagues have been spared.
I just thought I was having fun. It turns out, however, that I am a trend-setter. Or, perhaps it would be more accurate to say I’m riding a cultural wave. I learned this from the New York Times, of all places. A few days ago, Judith Newman published a piece that’s now called “If You’re Happy and You Know It, Must I Know Too?” She chronicles the growing popularity of emoticon usage in business communications. As one executive explains:
“Generally I’ll use a smiley or a wink when I’m indicating that my previous comment was meant to be a joke. Like, I hired a guy who’s head of sales and marketing to launch my company into the wonderful world of social media, and I sent him a note — ‘I hear there’s this thing called Twitter’ — and I added the smiley so he knew I wasn’t that clueless.”
That’s not all.
Lisa M. Bates, an assistant professor of epidemiology at Columbia, has lately embraced the smiley — as have her academic colleagues, albeit “sparingly and strategically,” she said. “Basically, I’m often sarcastic and in a hurry, and a well-planted smiley face can take the edge off and avoid misunderstanding,” Dr. Bates wrote in an e-mail. “I figure they have saved me some grief from misconstrued tone many times.”
But not everyone is happy about the proliferation of little faces:
Students of digital communication see the emerging acceptance of whimsical signifiers as inevitable, if not always desirable. “They’re part of the degradation of writing skills — grammar, syntax, sentence structure, even penmanship — that come with digital technology,” said Bill Lancaster, a lecturer in communications at Northeastern University in Boston. “Certainly I understand the need for clarity. But language, used properly, is clear on its own.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that writers and teachers of writing are among the last emoticon holdouts. “I am deeply offended by them,” said Maria McErlane, a British journalist, actress and radio personality on BBC Radio 2. “If anybody on Facebook sends me a message with a little smiley-frowny face or a little sunshine with glasses on them, I will de-friend them. I also de-friend for OMG and LOL. They get no second chance. I find it lazy. Are your words not enough? To use a little picture with sunglasses on it to let you know how you’re feeling is beyond ridiculous.”
Now there’s a cheery Brit for you.
Don’t worry. I don’t have any plans to start filling my blogs with little faces. Still, I find all of this quite fascinating.