The battle is over and the emoticons have won. Whatever you think of the symbols, they’re absolutely everywhere, including in work emails. But the etiquette over emoticon usage is still fuzzy, and it’s an understandable source of tension, especially considering that people may be judging us based on our smiley deployment.
Luckily, researchers are starting to better understand how people perceive emoticons in various contexts (emojis may be having a moment, but they’re not as universal as the top three old-school emoticons: the smiley, the frowny, and the winky). Their work can provide some helpful pointers on how to use your emoticons to maximum effect, whether dating online or responding to a professional email.
Here are five ways to be a smarter emoticon user:
1. If you want to be popular, limit how many frownies you use. Researchers from the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and Yahoo Labs analyzed more than 31 million tweets to determine the characteristics of the most popular and influential Twitter users. They found that Twitter users with a lot of social capital sprinkled smileys liberally throughout their missives, while frownies were linked to low popularity. Popular users still expressed negative opinions — they just did so with words.
2. Be aware of gender stereotypes. Multiple studies over the past 15 years have shown that women use emoticons more than men. Women also smile more in real life, perhaps because they are expected to be the more expressive gender, says Susan Herring, a linguist at Indiana University who studies online communication. In a 2009 analysis of messages featured on a texting-based Italian dating show, she and her colleagues argued that men and women used their texts to project different identities. The women who sent in their messages seemed to be “performing a kind of socially desirable femininity” characterized by “playfulness” and “fun,” while the men acted more serious.
“There’s this new norm that women are expected to show more happiness and excitement than men do,” said Herring. “If you’re a woman, you may have to realize that if you don’t use a smiley face sometimes, you may be misinterpreted as being in a bad mood or unhappy with the person you’re talking to. I don’t think that’s true for men.”
3. If you want someone to like you, match their emoticon frequency. In a 2013 study of messages in chat rooms full of men and women of various ages, Chris Fullwood, a cyberpsychology researcher at the University of Wolverhampton, and his colleagues found that although men typically use fewer emoticons in general, when conversing with women they become more expressive and up their usage.
“That could be a direct attempt to minimize social differences,” Fullwood said. “Our communication styles become more similar if we want to show we are similar to another person and get them to like us.” So if you’re trying to flirt with someone who isn’t matching your emoticon frequency, that may be a sign they’re not into it. And more generally, it’s best not to overdo it with the emoticons, since if you do you may be perceived as superficial or silly. “If you use one after every utterance you’re not going to be taken seriously,” said Herring.
4. Wait until you know someone. We don’t send emoticons to strangers with the same frequency that we send them to our friends, according to a 2008 study by Daantje Derks, an organizational psychologist at the Erasmus University of Rotterdam. If you receive an emoticon from someone you don't know very well, it may be interpreted as creepy. Like in face-to-face interactions, there’s a social norm against emoting around people you don’t know very well, Herring said. Going too heavy, too early on the emoticons is a bit like “laughing too loud,” she says.
5. Avoid looking like an emoticon tourist. Language and culture have been shown to color how emoticons are used and interpreted, as was recently demonstrated in a 2013 study of tweets from around the world. In Japan and South Korea, for instance, emoticons are more likely to be horizontally oriented (think @_@) ), as opposed to the standard American :), which is vertically oriented unless your mail program or phone turns it into a graphic for you.
In the Philippines and Indonesia, however, where English is spoken along with local languages, emoticons are just as likely to be vertically oriented. And in languages read from right to left, such as Arabic and Hebrew, smileys are reversed, like (: . South Americans apparently “are known to explore various types of eyebrows in their emoticons,” according to the study authors. So if you’re sending emoticons to foreign friends, a bit of research can help bridge the communication gap.