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What’s with smiley faces?

Posted by Peter Post  July 9, 2013 07:00 AM

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I got an email just the other day. There, at the end, was a smiley face: (:

The weird part was the smiley face was backward. When I key it instead as a semicolon followed by a closed parenthesis mark, I end up with ☺.

But I digress. I understood that the writer really intended a smiley face. Maybe it was just a typo.

“Thank you for letting me know what you think (:”. That’s how the writer closed the email, and I’m okay with it. In my book, the smiley face passes muster:

• at the end of an email,
• as a way of ending on a positive note,
• in a friendly email (preferably not a business email).

I wouldn’t recommend it all the time, but once in a while its upbeat message resonates with me. Kind of like finishing a conversation and making sure that as you say “Thanks,” you also smile. After all, that’s what I would recommend a person should do at the conclusion of a conversation. Smile.

But what about using the old smiley face in the body of a message? There, it seems to me, they take on a different meaning: “Hey, in case you missed it, what I just wrote was a joke, a bit of sarcasm, and I want to be sure you know that’s how I meant it.”

Oooops. When you write something and then have to put a qualifying symbol on it to make sure the recipient doesn't misinterpret it, that’s when you should probably go back and reread what you’ve written. Ask yourself if maybe your note needs editing or deleting. Humorous writing is hard to do. Dave Barry does it. Carl Hiaasen does it. David Sedaris and Steve Martin do it. But they’re the exceptions to the rule.

So, next time you think about using a smiley face to convince the recipient about the intent of the tone of your writing, put it aside for a few minutes and then reread it before sending it. Better yet, if you still need the smiley, pick up the phone to deliver your message. You may just save yourself a big headache.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Since 2004, Peter Post has tackled readers' questions in The Boston Sunday Globe's weekly business etiquette advice column, Etiquette at Work. Post is the co-author of "The Etiquette Advantage in Business" and conducts business etiquette seminars across the country. In October 2003 his book "Essential Manners For Men" was released and quickly became a New York Times best seller. He is also the author of "Essential Manners for Couples," "Playing Through–A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of Golf," and co-author of "A Wedding Like No Other." Post is Emily Post's great-grandson. His media appearances include "CBS Sunday Morning," CBS's "The Early Show," NBC's "Today," ABC's "Good Morning America," and "Fox News."

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