Is it ever acceptable to use :-) at work?

Posted on 24 January 2014 by Emily Stella

Most of our correspondence at work is electronic; email and instant messenger are popular tools for communicating with colleagues and clients alike.

The problem with email is that it’s emotionless. When we talk to someone in person, we have facial expressions, gestures and our tone of voice. Correspondence lacks all of this, and often a neutral message can be interpreted as negative.

This is where emoticons come in. Hurrah! They soften language that could be viewed as stern. They let us express how we want our email to be understood. They also add an air of informality, which can help build relations with colleagues.

So far, so good. It seems that emoticons have become the norm for good reason.

However, tread with caution. Used in the wrong way and to the wrong people, emoticons can come across as childish and lazy. They should certainly not be used internally to senior members of staff, nor should they ever be used in client emails. So, limit yourself to casual messaging with colleagues and friends.

Consider also how you use emoticons. Don’t, for example, use smileys to lessen the blow of an unpleasant task: ‘It would be great if you could put this together for me within the hour :-)’ How annoying!

Emoticon type also matters. A simple smiley face is one thing. But don’t venture into the realm of frowns, winks, confused and surprised faces. Not everyone knows what they mean and your emails risk becoming ridiculous.

And then there’s the matter of form. You can choose the smiley face that looks like this :-)(with a nose) or the more basic form :). I think the text version is a little more grown-up, but I’m splitting hairs. In any event, your email provider might not give you the choice. Outlook, for example, automatically turns everything into :-).

Of course no one knows whether you should punctuate before, after or leave it out altogether. The learned writing authorities of the last century never had the chance to form a view on such matters. Generally, I would complete the sentence with a full stop and then add your smiley, as in the quote above.

My verdict on emoticons: a helpful tool but use sparingly and with caution.

All OK?

While I’m on the subject of informal writing, let’s quickly turn to the world’s most popular slang word: OK. Or is that O.K.? Or ok? Maybe okay?

It doesn’t really matter. OK has been around for 150 years or so, and all these spellings are common. As you might have guessed, my preference is for ‘OK’ – the form suggested by the Oxford dictionaries.

But like emoticons, only use it in casual communication. It’s slang and has no place in formal writing. OK?