Evaluating Emoticons: Sometimes They Deserve Respect



A song related to not using the word “love” too much: http://soundcloud.com/starshipjenerprise/love-is-a-big-word-second


Recently I offended someone by mistake. I made a comment that was far too ambiguous. In my mind, it was a compliment. In their mind, it was an insult.

I used to use emoticons far too often. Recently, I was trying to give them up all together, along with exclamation points and the word “love” when referring to someone’s song or blog post.

These are the strange games I play with the world to try and improve my writing.

But when the person sent a message asking why I would insult them, they also mentioned that they like emoticons. It is a way for them to know what is going on.

In the world we live in, we are interacting with people in many cultures. If I tell one friend that I liked their song so much it made me want to puke all over it, they would know what I meant. Someone else living in a different country with a different language may think that I’m being a jerk because they don’t know my particular system of meaning.

So, now I respect emoticons. I realize that in certain situations, especially when interacting with a global audience that I have never personally met, it is actually fine to over-use them a bit. To put a smiley face in each comment, just in case.

Of course, if I am interacting with a writing group online and each member speaks my language and grew up in the same social type of setting as I did, then things are a little bit different. In those cases, my subtleties of speech will be more likely to be recognized. Plus, they may judge me harshly for using an emoticon even once.

It all depends on the crowd, the audience, the reader.

We are never writing in a vacuum!

Have you ever accidentally offended someone without meaning to?

Do you use emoticons, or hate them?

If you hate emoticons, do you think you survive wonderfully without them? Any tips for the rest of us?

Hope you are all well!


33 thoughts on “Evaluating Emoticons: Sometimes They Deserve Respect

  1. My first year or two on the Internet was a struggle because my sometimes deadpan sense of humor didn’t translate well to anyone who’d never heard me speak in person. After one misunderstanding too many, I went overboard in the other direction and began using smileys like a crutch on nearly everything I posted.

    I had to work at striking a balance, developing a better awareness of how I sound to strangers, and learning which audiences need smileys and which don’t. It’s been a while since my last major offense, so I presume it’s working.

    (I was this close to ending that sentence with a smiley.)

    • I relate a lot to that! I swing back and forth myself. Sometimes I use them too too much, and have a hard time trusting my impression of whether or not it’s the right time and place for them. It seems like a great skill though, and it seems that you are doing a great job! I’m tempted to end this with one too!

  2. I notice you use exclamation marks here! I play the same games with language, but am guilty of over using emoticons and exclamation marks in comments. I am very careful not to offend so emoticons are helpful in that way. Another thoughtful post. 🙂 🙂

  3. Communicating with people from different parts of the globe can be a fine balance with language barriers and such. I don’t even know alot of emoticons (the smiley and wink are it), so I tend to keep responses and such short.

    • That makes sense, I only use the smiley one and rarely the winky one. Maybe I’ve used that one four times in the past year. I never actually even look right at them when others use them, I just see them and sort of mentally note ‘smile’ in my head, regardless of the face really, which maybe causes misunderstandings as well!

  4. Great post. I used to accidentally offend people on a frequent basis. I would often compliment women that I knew – if I thought they looked very beautiful in a particular outfit I would tell them. Apparently, although I didn’t immediately realise it at the time, today, if you say a woman looks beautiful, apparently you are insinuating something else entirely.
    As for emoticons, I have a love hate relationship with them. I hate the fact there are so many of them, and that they are often used instead of articulating words. Sometimes I believe that words are far more powerful than a comical face. Words come from the heart or from the mind (or from elsewhere but I ain’t gonna touch that subject) depending on the situation. An emoticon I believe is occasionally used when someone doesn’t want to put themselves in a vulnerable position by using such powerful terminology, like ‘love’ for instance.
    On the other hand I love emoticons because they often feel very fun – they have no bias and often have no emotional sentiment, so clearly dictate the symbol of a friend. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t send a letter to my (wishful) partner and have, in replace for the word ‘love’, an emoticon. If that were the case, I’d be looking for a future ex Mrs. Childs before the day was through.
    Also, very nice song!

    • Hahaha I definitely agree that using an emoticon instead of the word love with someone close to you would indeed be a bit silly! It’s interesting that some people get offended by compliments- that is really their problem I’d think, not yours. It’s always nice to be nice, especially in an unambiguous way as it seems you were doing.
      I think above all else, I like emoticons for designating that “friend” feeling like you mentioned, especially when talking to someone for the first time. Because then you never know how seriously they take things, or whether they speak a different language. Then when you have a sort of relationship building, it is easier to assume that they will err on the side of good when wondering what you mean by something vague.
      I’m very very glad that you liked the song! 🙂

  5. I’m in favor of authentic communication. If emoticons are a reflection of who you are, use them. When someone takes offense, we have merely learned something about THAT person … not about ourselves.

    • That’s a super good point! The things we learn are always rather limited to a certain type of situation. And I definitely learned more about that person than anything, but also realized that there was no need to judge myself harshly if I resort to use emoticons in some tasteful places. Thanks for coming by again!

  6. Any post that makes you stop and think about your writing as to its impact on the readers and the subtle ways we can get lazy with that, is a great post. So, great post. While we don’t want to work ourselves into a pretzel worrying over using emoticons or this or that word too much, it’s so vital to sit back now and then and evaluate just how effectively we are communicating when we write – and just what we are in fact communicating. So thank you for continuing to address issues I wouldn’t have even thought about. Now I’m wondering, in light of our recent exchange on my blog, if there is in fact an emoticon for belching…

  7. At first, I was totally against emoticons. I thought they were ridiculous but is this virtual world we live in, I’ve begun to value their use. It’s really difficult when you’re spewing out your thoughts in short bursts all over the place. Someone else might think it has a tone or meaning you never intended. Emoticons help put an inflection on your words. If we spoke in person and I said something sarcastic and then smiled, you’d know I was joking, but if I just wrote those words, you might not. And I’m so over sensitive to insulting people, I think I overwrite to compensate. Which is probably more annoying.

    • Aw man now I’m wondering about how much I over write. I think I definitely do that. It’s true. And sometimes it will do the job, and sometimes a smiley face will suffice. I think that also, nobody is really going to get too pissed either way, especially about over writing. Unless you are in an LinkedIn writing group, maybe.

  8. Great post! In my psych textbook there was a study on computer-mediate communication where they discussed how the miscommunications and and de-individuation seen through texting/emailing can be largely avoided through emoticons :p

  9. I was never one to use emoticons. But I’ve converted. As you said different backgrounds lead to different interpretations when we read. I have a somewhat sarcastic and self-depreciating humour which may not always come across when I write, emoticons tend to help get the point across. But I also try not to “over-do” it 🙂 I generally try to only use them to express my actual facial expression in the moment. It helps make up for the lack of face to face communication that is the interwebs. Maybe there just has to be more variety, like some sort of half-smile vs full-smile, or awkward smile, etc (apparently I smile alot 🙂 )

    • haha I do the same! I really do make one when I smile, and I write ‘haha’ when I smile sometimes too. I’ve never been an ‘lol’ person. The smiley face and ‘haha’ seem closer to the truth to me than ‘lol’ for some reason, but when I read that, I end up thinking that person is sort of smiling anyway. It would be cool to do brain scans of some type on what happens when people see emoticons versus a real smile and ‘lol’s and ‘haha’s…that would be interesting!

      • Yeah I’m definitely more of a “haha” than “lol” type person as well. I think it’s cause haha makes me think of laughter, while I think of lol phonetically, sounds like laul or something 🙂 That’s an awesome idea! I’d love to see if or what the differences are between seeing a real smile vs emoticon one. I wonder if anyone has done that? I should ask the google 🙂

  10. I have never thought about this, Jennifer. I like to add emoticons because, like you pointed out, sometimes it’s hard for cross-groups of people to get the subtleties of what you’re trying to convey. You wisely pointed out that there are times for using them and times to be aware that they’re not needed. It so often comes down to mindfulness and being present, doesn’t it?

    • I think it really does come down to mindfulness, and also a lot of forgiving guesswork. It’s hard to know which backgrounds people are coming from sometimes, and even then, they may not be speaking in their native language. I guess it’s also equally important to keep this all in mind while reading as well, so that if someone seems curt or abrupt or mean, maybe they are not intending it 🙂 A very interesting world we live in, indeed!

  11. I have had some experience with readers not following my line of thought and thinking up stuff. After reading this post I believe using emoticons may be a good idea to transmit the mood of the writer – humour, thoughtful, sorry, fun, whatever!

    • I agree! They are not really good if you are writing to only people who care about “perfect writing,” but for an audience around the world of people who have diverse interests and backgrounds, they work wonders!

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