That’s according to a study which assessed the effects of smileys :) and frownies :( as I’m now calling them. Walther and D’Addario (2001) found that while smileys had no effect on the way a message was interpreted, frowns did reduce the positivity of positive messages. Overall, though, the effect of emoticons was relatively small.
These results don’t seem to tie up with a study I reported recently about the effects of emoticons and capitalisation on how email is perceived which did find a positive effect for smileys. But this study used different measures along with taking into account personality variables. Plus it compared a smiley emoticon with no emoticon, rather than with a frowny emoticon as did Walther and D’Addario (2001).
Time of day and delay
But emoticons and capitalisation are not the only nonverbal cues that have been studied in ‘computer mediated communication’. Time of day and delay before replying are two key nonverbal cues in email.
Walther and Tidwell (1995) looked at both of these. Work emails sent at night received the higher ratings for dominance when compared with the same email sent during the day. The opposite was seen for social emails, where more dominance was attributed to emails sent during the day.
Looking at the delay in replying to emails, affection towards work email replies was highest when quick during the day, while lowest when they were quick at night. The reverse findings were seen for social messages with quick replies at night attracting the most affection.
A few studies have also examined choice of avatars. These are images people chose to represent themselves in online chat or in online games. Contrary to expectations, one study found that generally the more abstract and less human-like an avatar was, the more likely it was to provoke interest (Nowak & Biocca, 2003).
Another study has found that when avatars with facial expressions are used, these are communicated to humans, although only to a limited extent (Ku et al., 2005).
Masters of meaning
All this research shows it’s amazing how much we can infer from so little information. You’d be forgiven for thinking that nonverbal behaviour in emails or instant messaging or even avatar choice was non-existent, and what there was didn’t make much difference. But this research just goes to show humans are masters at squeezing every last ounce of meaning from everything we’re presented with, even it’s only a colon followed by a left bracket.
» This post is part of a series on nonverbal behaviour.