How do Emoticons and Capitalisation Affect Perception of Email?

Compared with face-to-face communication, nonverbal cues in email are lacking. But humans are fabulous at generating meaning even when cues are sparse.

Emoticon Person

[Photo by Violator3]

Compared with face-to-face communication, nonverbal cues in email are lacking. But humans are fabulous at generating meaning even when cues are sparse. Psychologists have theorised our motivation for generating meaning is reducing levels of uncertainty and helping predict other people’s behaviour. This might explain how, in emails, even two simple things like capitalisation and emoticons can have important effects on reader’s perceptions. People want to predict our behaviour, and we theirs.

Personality, emoticons and capitalisation in email
The research on nonverbal behaviour in emails is not as simple as emoticons are good while capitalisation is bad. It seems both capitalisation and emoticons can evoke polarised responses. Perhaps less polarised for capitalisation which is normally considered a no-no in emails. Although capitalisation can also communicate excitement and not just senseless shouting.

For emoticons, there is some research finding they can take the sting out of a flame (a message with negative content), while others find it doesn’t. Perhaps some of this variability in the perception of capitalisation and emoticons comes down to personality?

The study
Byron and Baldridge (2007) researched this by asking college students to fill in a personality questionnaire and then read emails from an unknown person. These were simple requests for copies of academic papers or information about the university. Each student was randomly assigned to read two of four differently presented emails. Some of the emails were all capitalised, others included emoticons and the rest neither, so the researchers could compare responses. The students then rated the sender’s likeability.

They found that, sure enough, using correct capitalisation and emoticons tended to make a better impression on readers. The reader’s personality also influenced how emoticons and capitalisation were perceived. Readers high in both extroversion and emotional stability were likely to rate sender’s emails as more likeable if they had correct capitalisation. As for emoticons, readers higher in emotional stability were likely to rate sender’s emails more likeable if they used emoticons.

The opposite was also true. This meant that for the introverted and emotionally unstable, correct capitalisation tended not to affect the sender’s likeability, perhaps even lowering it. Similarly, emoticons had little effect on the emotionally unstable.

More questions than answers
These results are interesting but they also raise loads more questions. Emoticons may make the sender appear more likeable, but do they also make them seem less professional? Can emoticons really take the sting out of a flame? In this study, they only used a smiley face :-) but what about all the other emoticons? And what if you’re using emoticons other people don’t understand?

These questions are multiplied if more advanced ways of communicating emotion in email become a reality. Researchers are currently working on electronic mail systems which involve expressive typography, graphical components as well as old fashioned words to convey emotion. Whether this will provide a significant and useable step forward in email over punctuation, italicisation and capitalisation, we shall have to wait and see. Until then, WE’VE GOT QUITE ENOUGH QUESTIONS TO ANSWER ABOUT EMAIL JUST AS IT IS :-)


» This post is part of a series on nonverbal behaviour.

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Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

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