HR Strange But True!
September 20, 2007

This week, as we celebrate the putative 25th anniversary of the computer-text smiley face, we tackle the issue of the propriety of emoticons in workplace communications.

For those of you who are not as "with it" as your editors (and most of you know how tragically hip we are), emoticons (emotive or emotional icons) are a kind of text or graphical shorthand used to convey emotion in written communications, primarily in instant and text messages and e-mails. In fact, some instant messaging (IM) programs automatically translate text emoticons into their graphical equivalents.

Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, takes credit(?) for having launched this verbal carnage 25 years ago with three simple keystrokes:


In a proposal posted to a Carnegie Mellon message board on Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman wrote:

    I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
    Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use

The use of those emoticons quickly caught on and soon spawned a host of others, with some of the most common being:

;-) -- The wink, used to convey that you are saying something tongue-in-cheek or think you are being clever
:-D -- The laugh (you figure it out)
:-P -- Tongue sticking out, indicating you are being silly
|-O -- The yawn (again, you figure it out)

For the more creative texters and IMers, there's always:

//0-0\\ -- John Lennon ('nough said)
*\0/* -- Cheerleader (rah)
5:-) -- Elvis (as Fahlman said, read it sideways)

But all of this begs the question of whether any of these text "cuteseyisms" have a legitimate place in business communications. In a survey article on emoticons back in July, the New York Times interviewed Alexis Feldman, the director of the Feldman Realty Group, who had some very strong opinions on the subject.

"I mean, it's ludicrous," Feldman told the Times. "I'm not going to feel better about losing hundreds of thousands of dollars because someone puts a frown face to regretfully inform me."

Emoticons, Feldman said, should be reserved for use by "naïve tweens on AOL Instant Messenger finding out after-school soccer practice is canceled."


Helio, a cell phone company and self-appointed arbiter of "The New Social Etiquette," offers, in a booklet by the same name, three things to remember about emoticons:

  1. Guys shouldn't send other guys emoticons. Unless they like the other guy. A lot.
  2. No emoticons unless you've met the person face to face or at least sent a picture. Unless, of course, your face actually resembles a semicolon.
  3. Never use the "cool" emoticon (i.e., the one with the sunglasses). It's the virtual equivalent of the fanny pack.

If you enjoyed this story, maybe we'll do a similar piece on the growing use of acronyms in workplace communications. So, TTFN to all of our BFFs ;-)

Source:, The New York Times, Helio

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