Can you see me smiling?

I don’t like smileys. It’s not that I’m a miserable so-and-so, it’s just I have this old-fashioned theory that if my writing’s going to make someone smile, the words’ll do it on their own. The reader’s not going to need a prompt. That would be the literary equivalent of holding up an ‘applause’ sign to a TV audience.

But I see smileys in all sorts of unexpected places. Web chats about unlocking a phone. Tweets about giving your electricity supplier a meter reading. Invitations to link up with someone I’ve worked with on LinkedIn. Feedback forms from someone who’s just been to one of our workshops. And emails. They sneak into emails all the time.

Why do we need these open brackets, lonely colons and stranded hyphens to inject a bit of personality into our writing? ‘It’ll make me sound like a real person’, I’ve been told, or ‘it’s okay, because the customer frowned first’. But I’m not convinced we need emoticons at all. If, say, I was in a mobile phone store swapping a SIM card from one phone to another, I wouldn’t smile non-stop at the customer. Nor would I wink at them, or stick my tongue out. So why do it virtually?

If there is such a thing as emoticon etiquette when writing at work, then in my mind it goes something like this:

  • If you’re talking to a customer, then never smile first.
  • Smile, and only smile.
  • If it’s a colleague, well, you probably know them better than I do and can make your own mind up.


And if you’re writing to me? Don’t take it personally, but I never smile back.

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