The Challenge of Nuanced Messages in Lean, Text-Only Media :(

You know that feeling when the words don't quite capture the spirit of your intended message, but words are all you have?

Let's say your project team has just been reprimanded by the boss for missing an interim deadline. You're confident that the team will meet its final deadline, so you're ready to brush off the criticism and get back to work. Your colleagues, however, left the meeting grumbling about being criticized in public, and you fear that morale will slip.

You could craft a restorative, inspirational message to soothe the bruised egos and get the team's energy turned around in a positive direction. However, writing such a message could be risky, because world-weary teammates might just brush it off as happytalk and resent you for trying to be a cheerleader. Moreover, to minimize the chances of a negative reaction, you'll have to spend a lot of time trying to get the words just right.

Alternatively, you could also suggest that your colleagues lighten up and stay focused on the ultimate goal of the project. However, you already know that telling grumpy people to cheer up is a sure-fire way to make most of them even grumpier.

Instead, you opt for a quick bit of gentle and jovial sarcasm, designed to help release the negative emotions in a collegial way. When you get back to your desk, you write the following one-line message via IM or email:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on ;)

The over-the-top phrasing is a subtle way to remind everyone that the criticism wasn't all that traumatic, the use of "our" reminds your colleagues that you're all in this together, and that winking emoticon tells everyone to lighten up without actually saying so. The apparent sarcasm connects with people who are marinating in their negative emotions, but it's really a pep talk disguised as sarcasm. With apologies to Julie Andrews, you're feeding them a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down.

But wait: you remember reading somewhere that emoticons are "unprofessional," so you replace it with a simple period:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on.

Oops. That one minor change to make the message more professional turned it into a statement of resigned sadness. If you were delivering the message in person, you could use a real smile to replace the emoticon. Even over the phone you could use a brief chuckle. But with IM or email, all you have are soulless squiggles on the screen.

You search your keyboard for any acceptable symbol that might help:

Well, let's pick up the pieces of our shattered lives and move on!

Great, now you've managed to sound bitter and demanding at the same time.

Under these circumstances, are emoticons really all that bad? And given the trend we're seeing in many industries toward a less "corporate" voice in business communication (spurred in large part by social media), is it only a matter of time before a few basic symbols enter the mainstream for all but the most formal messages?

When you think about it, is 😉 all that different from !  ? They are both symbols designed to give words a particular emotional shape. In fact, the exclamation point would probably welcome the help. As the only emphasis character at a writer's disposal, the exclamation point is asked to do too much and is often overused as a result.

What position do you take with your students regarding emoticons in their writing for the business communication course? Is it time to introduce judicious use of a few subtle and simple emoticons, at least for internal communication? (Just to be clear, we're talking here about using text emoticons only, not graphical smiley faces, those collections of yellow cartoon characters available in many IM and blogging systems.)

Let us know what you think 🙂


Photo credit: VersatImage