Liz Reusswig

An Emotional Case for Emoticons

By: Liz Reusswig | December 5, 2013 | 


By Liz Reusswig

My friend Rebecca Todd recently wrote that emoticons don’t mesh with her learning style.

In her post, Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us, she made a compelling case that emoticons may be confusing and incongruous additions for those who don’t respond to visual learning.

I seriously laughed out loud…not at the content of her post, which was enlightening, but because I had spent the better part of the day writing a pro-emoticons post based on a comment Rebecca had made on Facebook!

Emoticons Have Feelings Too

Let me back up for a moment: I adore Rebecca, have enormous respect for her and think she is one of the smartest folks I know, so her comment that no one older than 13 should be using emoticons stung. It stung, badly. Anyone who knows me online has been subjected to my ridiculous and copious use of smiley, sad, meh, grouchy, confused, and other faces.

What did this mean? Does she wince when I respond to her with a winky smile? Has she banned me from her Facebook newsfeed? How many other friends gag on my posts? Should I cold turkey my emoticon habit?

So of course, I picked up a sponge and started to clean the kitchen and obsessed about pondered my choices.

History of Emoticons

These fun little additions to our written and typed communication have been around a long time.

According to Keith Houston, in his recent Wall Street Journal essay, Smile! A History of Emoticons, the first (a winky) may have appeared as early as 1862 in a speech by Abraham Lincoln.

The more recent birth, however, is widely accepted to be from a 1982 Carnegie Mellon University message board post clarifying a joke about a lab accident (smiley and sad faces). As online communication has proliferated in the last 30 years, so has the use of emoticons.

Emoticons as Visual Aids

So, why do we use them? Most evidence seems to indicate that just as we may wink or nudge someone after a verbal comment, these visual aids allow us to clarify (or cloak) the true meaning of our words. With so much communication happening online, emoticons provide a way for those who are not necessarily confident in their written skills to clearly project emotion.

I conducted a non-scientific survey (ok, it was a few of my friends and my kids), which showed that some people use emoticons just because they make them feel good! Typing the smiley face actually makes them smile. This is an interesting point and makes me think we will see them used more in consumer-directed content.

“Tawk” Amongst Yourselves…and Popeye

Anyway, back in the kitchen furiously scrubbing away on the counters, it struck me.

My emoticon usage is kind of like my fast-talking New York accent – a little bit ingrained, a little bit of a communication choice, but certainly not intended to offend.

Some friends might find it annoying or childish and there are options for limiting what they see from me, which would be understandable.

I don’t employ silly face icons to be irksome, I just happen to like the illustrative emphasis that emoticons provide. They’re fun for those of us who try to be a light-hearted, enjoy a good joke and the occasional (cough, cough) snarky comment, but they’re not intended to hurt anyone.

For friends who indicate a preference, like Rebecca, I’m happy to articulate my jokes better or make a concerted effort to lose the emoticons in our conversations. However, probably not going to be as easy to lose the exclamation points, the words AWESOME, AMAZING…as Popeye says, “I yam, what I yam!”

So there you have it – my kitchen is clean and we have some good healthy debate on these goofy little faces. What’s your take on emoticons?

Also, for those of you who love all things writing-related, check out Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters- The Secret Life of Punctuation. It is chock full of really interesting information about…well, as he puts it “typographic raconteurs hiding in plain sight.”

About Liz Reusswig

Liz Reusswig is the owner of EMR Strategies, a small business consulting firm, and is the founder/owner of Kids Theatre News, an informational website for the theatre community. She loves helping people discover the power of social media and online engagement. Liz lives in Pennsylvania with her hydrogeologist husband, their two theatre kids, and loyal dog, Coco.

  • Ahhh Liz…firstly, I adore you, and thank you for the history on this post! But…you’ve quoted me inaccurately. At no point did I ever deign to tell others what they should or should not do. My actual quote was “dear people over 13 who use emoticons, why?”. I did not at any point say that you shouldn’t-I was really trying to figure out the process. As I wanted an adult perspective, I put an age to it. It was funny in the responses to see who read it the same way you did-that I was telling others what to do, or passing judgement. In truth, I was trying to figure it out. I do not take kindly to people telling me what to do, and I do not, then, tell others how they should live. I was simply trying to clarify why others used them, and to inform that in fact I make no meaning from them. Thanks for adding the converse perspective here!

  • RebeccaTodd OMG…you mean I did all that cleaning for nothing?! LOL  Seriously, I really did misread & subsequently misquote…for that I apologize!  It is very interesting that even when words are right there in front of us, we don’t all perceive them the same!  I guess that goes to this whole issue about the different styles of learning and communication, too.  Some of us respond best to visual, some audio, etc.  I think the important point in both of our posts is that we are all different and acknowledging & respecting those differences makes our communications better!
    PS – my VARK scores were: (although now I’m questioning the Read/Write!)Visual:

  • lizreusswig RebeccaToddMy exact words (for the record)… “Dear
    people over 13 that use emoticons- why? That’s a serious question, no
    snark intended. I really don’t get it. We didn’t grow up using that as a
    method of communication. Are you visual learners? I scored a whopping
    0% on the VARK, so admittedly visual representations of “feelings” mean
    absolutely nothing to me. Love, RAT.”

  • lizreusswig Ahh see you’ve a much more well rounded profile than I. I don’t even “get” a lot of visual art due to my weirdness. Beyond Group of Seven landscapes, I struggle to make meaning from abstract art.

  • RebeccaTodd And yet I think you have an artistic nature and certainly very cool fashion sense…is it the 2-D v. 3-D that loses meaning for you?

  • lizreusswig RebeccaTodd I wish I had more time to hang out here in this space and discuss but work calls. The history was definitely interesting to know! And I find I use emoticons a lot more on Instagram than FB or Twitter. I hesitated at first but sometimes they add just the right touch (for my learning style anyway!!). Great discussion ladies!

  • Interesting conversation as I often question my own use of emoticons. I find them a bit silly and immature in writing style yet use them often as perhaps a security blanket.  I find I use the mostly in Facebook social conversations. As you have demonstrated with Rebecca’s post, statements are vulnerable to interpretation. When I am teasing, using sarcasm or wanting the reader to know I am not serious, I often add the winking emoticon. Perhaps it is to save myself from having to follow up or from misinterpretation of intent.  For instance, you dirty dog 😉 Perhaps a therapist would tell me it is a sign of insecurity rather than assurance!

  • I’m not much of an emoticon user, but I do frequently use (and probably overuse) the exclamation point to indicate “j/k” or “wink.” In fact, I think I read an article on that a while back …
    When I do use one, it’s by itself as a reply in a Facebook thread and it’s usually this one (doubt it’ll show up here): 

  • Hi Liz, 
    I do understand your feelings on emoticon use; however, I’m particularly neutral when it comes to them. I think you and Rebecca both raise very good points about them, but when it comes to professional engagement, I strongly believe emoticons should be left out of it and used solely for personal use. 
    As RebeccaTodd mentioned in her post, they can easily be misconstrued and easily misinterpreted as offensive or suggestive in the wrong ways. But at the same time, I agree with you that it sometimes helps express the context of our messages. Ninety percent of human communication is nonverbal.

    So, if you ask me, it’s a complete toss-up. Emoticons are a 50/50 thing. You just have to make sure you’re using it with the right people.

  • JRHalloran RebeccaTodd I agree…with you and Rebecca.  For me, seeing someone’s facial expressions and body language is important in understanding them.  The emoticon is a way to try to garner a little bit of that visual assistance, but I get that it might not work for everyone and not in every situation.

  • RobBiesenbach I know I “overuse” the exclamation point!! see there I go again!

  • annelizhannan Great to hear from you! My intent is similar…although most people probably would know we’re joking if we called them a “dirty dog” – then again, you never know! LOL  PS – the therapist would charge you a lot more, though!


  • lizreusswig JRHalloran RebeccaTodd I enjoy using emoticons, partially to give additional context to a comment that might otherwise go misunderstood. 
    It’s fascinating to see how people respond to their use, isn’t it?

  • lizreusswig RobBiesenbach My name is Laura, and I’m an exclamation point-aholic. I think I mentioned this on RAT’s post, but I have schooled myself now to write something and then go back and edit out at least half of the !!!! I put in just writing it naturally. But for me, like you Liz, !!! are the easiest way for me to communicate visually how I actually talk.
    Anyone who has met me or skyped with me know I’m really expressive when I talk. I make funny facial expressions, I throw my arms all around, I tend to talk fast (another thing I’ve worked on), and I have a fairly energetic and ‘exclamable’ voice.

  • jasonkonopinski …. 

    Friday night they’ll be dressed to killDown at Dino’s bar and grill
    The drink will flow and blood will spill
    And if they want to fight, you’d better let ’em

  • Hey you are not going to find me giving a Supreme Court ruling on the validity of emoticons

    My perspective is that emoticons are the shorthand of visual content, in other words they are slang, and probably always going to be interpreted in radically different ways. Some people use them like a middle finger and some people use them like a genuine grin….I’ve seen both in volume.

    But I will say, like anything the frequency tends to dilute the point, and maybe that’s the lesson here for communications. Kind of like when someone says things are amazing constantly. You end up wondering if that really IS the best shipment of red delicious apples Piggly Wiggly has ever had.

  • LauraPetrolino lizreusswig Yes, I’ve worked to restrain myself. When I was with a big PR firm, I learned when interacting with our European colleagues to reduce the exclamation points and “GOOD MORNINGs” and “HAVE A NICE DAYs.” To them it was just evidence of American forced intimacy and enthusiasm.

  • JoeCardillo jasonkonopinski Silly boys…this is not a fight! But, Joe you can sing Thin Lizzy anytime you like! 🙂

  • LauraPetrolino RobBiesenbach Hi, Laura!!!!!!!!  We Is, What We Is – loud-talking, arm-flailing, face-making Ninjas! 😉

  • LivefyreMeg Livefyre needs Emiticons. 
    This is pretty funny because type is soooo different from speech. 
    I CAN DO THIS TO SHOUT AT YOU with out really shouting at you. And if I did that you could still say is he shouting or is he not noticing shift lock?
     And yet emotions and tone and inflection are missing. I have had email misunderstanding with past girlfriends. What you thought it meant this vs that?
    Emoticons are great for at least solving one of the 3. 
    But do we really need more than 5 or 6? 8)

  • I wish I could make the poop emoticon here…just because it’s my favorite one of all!

  • Howie Goldfarb LivefyreMeg Yes, yes, yes!  And I know exactly what you mean, Howie…I really think so much conflict is the result of miscommunication and misunderstanding that goes unresolved! 🙂

  • AnneReuss

    lizreusswigI adore them. I love using rage comics too (though that seems to be dying, but not with me!) Facial expressions are my pitch and tone, and emoticions help deliver it so more of the personality comes through writing! Great points brought up by you and RebeccaTodd – fun debate!

  • AnneReuss RebeccaTodd Thanks, Anne – It’s been interesting seeing all the various comments and there really is no right or wrong on this.  I love that this “debate” has reminded us that we don’t all process the same way and respecting those differences will make us better communicators!

  • AnneReuss

    lizreusswig For sure! But how do we know when to not use them if we don’t know the person’s preferences yet? I think we just go with our guts, common sense depending on the situation and experiment!

  • AnneReuss Definitely, being respectful doesn’t necessarily mean changing who we are (I Yam, What I Yam, right?) and like you say, using guts & common sense!  Love that!

  • JoeCardillo jasonkonopinski I do that tune at Karaoke. Quite well, I might add. 😉

  • Love it!
    I commented on Rebecca’s post and mentioned much of the same thing. I see emoticons as an attempt to further humanize the messages we send to each other, the routes of which are more frequently nothing but readable text. No tone, no non-verbals, no elbow to the ribs, no hugs, no eye contact. It often is nothing but the words written in the text/post/what-have-you and not everyone is as gifted in eloquence and such strong writing voices as the people contributing to these blogs certainly are.  😉
    I love emoticons, but it is important to know that not everyone I talk to does and do my best to communicate as effectively as possible with all the different people I come into contact with.
    I appreciate your opinion on this topic, thanks.

  • JackieCaliguro


    I really enjoyed your post! 

    I too am a bit of an emoticon addict, but have found that some do not share our love and obsession for these fun little characters. So sad 🙁

    As you said, much of our communication these days happens online where the human element of conversation is taken away, which can often make it difficult and sometimes impossible to accurately convey your message. I would consider myself a slightly (read: very) sarcastic person, which can get you into a bit of hot water when communicating online. I feel like emoticons are a good way for me to remind or show people that my comments are meant to be light- hearted and funny, even if a bit sarcastic 🙂

    That being said, I think they are also a fabulous way to soften the blow when discussing a touchy subject or conveying a message your recipient may not want to hear.

  • lizreusswig LauraPetrolino RobBiesenbach “loud-talking, arm-flailing, face-making Ninjas! ;)”

    Stop talking about me behind my back… 🙂

  • JackieCaliguro You? Sarcastic? No way. 😉

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