Are Emoticons Unprofessional?

Emoticons are taking over the world. They have winked and smiled their way into our correspondence, from the classic semicolon-parenthesis in our inboxes ; ) to the cartoonish faces that regularly punctuate our IM chats. This summer, they even get a vehicle film with The Emoji Movie. And while there’s no denying their popularity, I often wonder about their propriety in the context of a professional email. They certainly add personality to an otherwise dry form of communication, but that personality is childish, lazy, and affectedly cute.

Anti-emojites would argue that if you want someone to think you’re just kidding, use your words to express that fact. Putting a cartoonish wink at the end of your sentence undermines your credibility and communicates that you were too lazy to explain your intentions.

Pro-emojites would argue that written communication is prone to tonal misinterpretation, and the occasional emoticon helps to provide, well, emotion. Also, emojis imply a familiarity that can warm up a correspondence and encourage a friendlier dynamic.

The challenge is that both camps have a point, which means it’s up to each of us to decide on our individual best practices. As you do so, consider the most important factor in your communication protocol: your audience. If your persona is friendly, casual, even playful, you may feel that emoticons reinforce the “user-friendly” tone you seek to imbue into your emails. But don’t forget that your communications should always be calibrated to your industry. Most service professionals travel in corporate-minded circles that expect a high degree of professionalism. Also, consider generational expectations. In her professional etiquette book, “Don’t Burp in the Boardroom,” Rosalinda Oropeza Randall points out that older generations prefer a more traditional tone. (After all, they were corresponding just fine before the emoji keyboard appeared on our smart phones.)

Oh, and one final warning: many email platforms automatically convert a traditional smiley : ) into a toothy, saccharine animation 😃.  Like I said, emojis are taking over. It’s up to us to fight back… or at least discern whether the other party will appreciate the grin.


Authored by David Ackert

7 thoughts on “Are Emoticons Unprofessional?

  • It looks like this system took out the text that I put in which was a left angle bracket, followed by the word “smile” and a right angle bracket.
    Like this, but it might not come through “”

  • David,
    How do you feel about using something like this instead of emoticons?

    I tend to use that instead of 🙂 when I want to make sure that it doesn’t get translated into an emoji.

    Overall, I think that judging your audience is the best advice!


  • Well, I am 51 and do not mind emojis (of course I do not live with blinders on either and very use to IT/Tech projects via ebusiness) and I know plenty around 55 who are about the same as I am, though I know very few around 60 who use, and know zero in the 65-70 plus bracket who use. So, I would say judge your audience and I would say keep it to a “smile” for perhaps 99% plus of usage and to refrain from usage with your banker.

  • I take the other person’s lead. If they emoji me, I’m just as likely to emoji back. No point in being stalwartly professional – business development is all about establishing commonalities, after all.

  • Some of the people who started out as professional contacts have become good friends. Where they are concerned, I may throw in the occasional emoticon. I also use them from time to time to humanize certain messages, but as you say David, it depends on the audience.

    • No disrespect intended here, but I wonder if generation informs your reaction. If you are a baby boomer, your reaction is consistent with my experience but my gen (millennials) use emojis all the time. … I wonder if contractions were frowned on when they first entered the professional world.

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