Do you remember seeing your first emoticon?

The first documented use of “:-)” dates back to 1982, when Scott Fahlman proposed that it be used as a “joke marker” on a message board for Carnegie Mellon University computer scientists. Here’s his Internet-changing message:

“I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

Read it sideways.”

Today, emoticons need a bit less explanation. As social media has grown (and character counts have shrunk), these pictorial representations of feelings are playing a significant role in communication.

If you’re still not sure whether emoticons are a good fit for your brand’s social media voice and tone, we’ve gathered up seven real-deal scientific studies that say using emoticons can make you appear friendlier, grow your popularity on social media,  and even make you happier offline!

I’m feeling 🙂 already…

7 reasons to use emoticons

1. They make you more popular on social media

An analysis of more than 31 million tweets and half a million Facebook posts uncovered the fact that positive emoticons can be a social media status marker.

Simo Tchokni of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory and her colleagues used various metrics such as number of followers and Klout score to determine the traits of influential social media sharers—and emoticons were a common factor.

“The emoticon features achieved high performance, suggesting that there is a strong link between emoticon use and social power. Powerful users tend to use emoticons often and high Klout is strongly associated with positive emoticons,” the study concluded.

2. We react to them like we would real human face

If you ever wish you could reach out and talk to your followers and fans face-to-face, here’s some good news: An emoticon might be the next best thing!

Scientists have discovered that when we look at a smiley face online, the same very specific parts of the brain are activated as when we look at a real human face.

A caveat: This only works in the left-to-right format. In other words, humans now read “:-)” the same way as a human face, but not  “(-:”.

“Emoticons are a new form of language that we’re producing, and to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity,” researcher Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, told ABC Science.

Why might this make a difference when it comes to social media and marketing? Because human faces are particularly effective attention-grabbing mechanisms.

“Most of us pay more attention to faces than we do to anything else,” says Churches, who has been studying the neuroscience of face perception for years. “We know experimentally that people respond differently to faces than they do to other object categories.”

3. They’re OK even in business settings!

You might have heard that emoticons aren’t so professional for workplace communication. That might still be true in some industries, but more and more smiley faces are entering work emails—and the science shows that no one really seems to mind.

A University of Missouri-St. Louis study wanted to test how people perceive smiley faces in a work email as compared to a social email. Researchers sent two types of email messages to a group—one a flirtatious message, another extending a job interview request—and added emoticons to some of each.

The researchers discovered that the smiley faces in both types of fictional emails made the recipient like the sender more and feel that the sender liked them more. Even in the work oriented mail, the sender’s credibility wasn’t affected by the emoticons—even when they used 4!

emoticons in work emails

“In a task-oriented context, where impersonal, cold, and unsociable features of computer-mediated communication are strongly encouraged in order to build credibility or professionalism, using emoticons in e-mail might create a positive expectancy violation by being friendly, emotional, and personal,” the study concluded.

4. They soften the blow of a critique

Got a critique or some feedback to share? Emoticons can lend a hand.

Studies on workplace communication show that when specific, negative feedback from a superior comes with positive emoticons, employees are more likely to feel good about the message and more likely to make the changes asked of them.

“Our results suggest that using liking emoticons increases perceived good intention of the feedback provider and decreases perceived feedback negativity when the feedback is specific.”

emoticons and feedback experiment

It’s worth noting that using disliking, or negative, emoticons had the opposite effect in some cases.

5. They make you appear more friendly and competent

Want to look smarter and more approachable online? Emoticons could be the answer.

In a study that had participants chat online with “health experts” and “film experts” who either used or avoided emoticons, the participants rated the experts in both topics friendlier and more competent when they communicated with emoticons.

This study also noted an awesome side benefit to emoticons: It might help you remember what you’ve read more easily! The study authors write:

It appears that the presence of emoticons affects cognition as well, because participants’ scores on memory for chat content were significantly higher in the “emoticons present” condition than in the “emoticons absent” condition.

6. They create a happier workplace

Researchers have long known about the negativity effect in email, which is the phenomenon that a recipient is likely to perceive an email as more negative than the email sender intended. Since we don’t get the chance to share facial expressions and other nonverbal cues in our emails, they can sometimes be tougher to interpret.

But emoticons might be able to help.

In a 2013 study, 152 professionals read an email message both with and without smiley emoticons that were part of a fictional workplace situation.

Example Message:

I can’t make the meeting you scheduled because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed.


I can’t make the meeting you scheduled because it conflicts with my staff meeting. Email me and let me know what I missed. 🙂

When they were questioned about what they read, the results showed that emoticons reduced the negativity effect in the business-related email messages—the same message sounded less negative when paired with a positive (smiley) emoticon.

“The findings suggest that these symbolic emotional cues help “clue in” the recipient towards a particular emotion (in this study, the smiley face emoticon represented a more positive tone), thereby clarifying the intentions of the sender,” the study’s authors write.

They added that emoticons could help employees in remote locations more accurately “read” the emotional content of a message and could help mitigate cyber aggression and conflict over email by clarifying messages and giving the conversation a more “light-hearted” tone.

7. They correlate with real-life happiness

One last reason to consider adding emoticons to your vocabulary? They might just make you happy!

2008 study found that emoticon users experience a “positive effect on enjoyment, personal interaction, perceived information richness, and perceived usefulness.”

The study added that emoticons are “not just enjoyable to use, but also a valuable addition to communication methods.”

P.S. Ready for the next phase? Learn how to add cool emoticons, emojis and symbols to your posts with our ultimate guide.

Do you use emoticons? Do you notice a difference in how they make you feel when you see them in communication? I’m keen to hear your observations and experiences in the comments!

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Written by Courtney Seiter

Courtney writes about social media, diversity and workplace culture at Buffer. She runs Girls to the Moon on the side and pets every dog she sees.

  • Ive always felt the urge to include emoticons in my messages and articles but always reframed because it looked ‘unprofessional’. I dont think ill reframe anymore after reading this post, cheers buffer 🙂

    • Let me know how the change goes for you, Paul! Thanks so much for reading!

  • Rachel Jackson

    LOVE THIS POST!! My friends and I have debated the use of emoticons but most of us LOVE them! You explained exactly what I’ve been feeling — they show the human-ness / the face behind our words!! Thanks Courtney! 🙂

    • Hey Rachel, thanks so much for checking it out! It was really fun to dive into the science on this one. 🙂

  • I use emoticons sparingly in a business setting. I was never sure if they were considered unprofessional or too feminine. Now I’ll reconsider.

    • Ah, too feminine is a great one to ponder. I bet there are some studies on that as well. Thanks for checking this one out, Deane!

  • Stellio Coutsides

    Fantastic, informative post. Thank you

  • Love this! 🙂 I’m a big fan of emoticons (especially :P, because I’m silly like that), although used sparingly. More than one in a three sentence email, for example, just makes them stand out a lot more, in my opinion. But when they’re just slipped in there and not super noticeable, I think it makes your writing feel more real, more like talking. Even in a professional setting, I think writing should feel more natural and like how you would talk.

    • Such a great point, Brittany! I totally agree, I love writing that feels natural and like you’re just chatting with the author. Creates a great feeling as a reader!

  • Christy Largent

    I’m so happy to read this!! Now if we could just find science that says the use of !!! was beneficial as well. 🙂

    • I’m on it! I’ll get back to you on that one. 🙂

      • Kelvin

        its not 🙂 its this ?

  • I love these types of posts (with good data points to back ’em up). Just wanted to pass that along.

    • Thanks so much for sharing that! It’s always helpful for us to know what kind of content resonates most with y’all. 🙂

  • Love this post and needed the confirmation. I use smiles and emoticons in any type of message. It gives you a chance to show a bit of your personality even if you write a standard text.

    • I think that’s the key, Patricia! Showing a bit of personality is always awesome!

  • Jeremy Poland

    Very interesting read. I’ve always felt there was a difference between 🙂 and (: Thank you!

  • Adam Fifield

    I’ve always pushed back against emoticons, and yet the tone of my emails and posts keeps getting misinterpreted. Oh well, if you can’t beat them, join them.

    • That’s a really great point, Adam. For a while I tried to avoid too many exclamation points and had the same experience. I guess we can’t stop language from evolving!

      • I love exclamation marks!! But seriously great post, had to use it to explain myself to a client today and did some A/B testing with EMOJIs in subject lines of emails. Tons of fun!

        • How did they test? Fascinating experiment!

          • We used Mailchimp after they added EMOJI support in, and tested the exact same subject line with and without EMOJIS in the front/end.

            Tested smiley faces, and the salsa dancer. It was sent to about 600 people, thought it wasn’t statistically significant we saw an increase in open rates of ~14% each time.

            Looking forward to testing it more but companies like Delias have been using sun and flower emojis for years, there are only a few email clients that don’t support it.

          • AntoxaGray

            Sounds like anecdotal evidence. Next time +14% could get dancer pic, or no pictures at all.

    • AntoxaGray

      Or stop caring if people try to find hidden message in your text when there is none.

      And nobody really going to say “ooh you’re bad man, you didn’t put 🙂 at end of message”.

      Misinterpreted, hah. Teen girls think like that, real men shouldn’t.

  • Rhiannon D’Averc

    Definitely going to use them more often now as I have always held back in the past. Now I know it’s okay to use them in private messages at the very least.

    • Hey Rhiannon! Sounds like a great plan to dive in slowly. I’m sure some industries are a bit more accepting than others. 🙂

  • Rachel

    Great post 😀

  • This is exactly what I needed to reassure my work, thank you for sharing! I’ve used emojis for my work to huge benefit in fostering engagement and connecting brand advocates who’ve joined in with creative sharing. I used them on a character profile first so work felt more comfortable with the tone of voice. Now I’ve carried them over more discreetly to the brand profile to get the advocates to share that content too. Major result in a few short months from ground zero. #Nogoingback 😉

    • Wow, what a case study! Thanks so much for sharing that, James!

  • Great post Courtney! 🙂 I have been using emoticons and emoji in my own and my clients social media for a while now. They do help with relating the message we are conveying to go along with the words and images. Have a wonderful Wednesday! 🙂

    • Thanks, Steve! Awesome to see that these studies have proven what you’re already finding with your clients. 🙂

  • Daniela De Giorgi Petkovic

    Completely agree!:-)

  • Kim Madlom

    Clearly it’s time to give my anti-emoticon attitude an adjustment. Thanks Courtney. Good points and good examples. I am indeed ready for the next phase.

    • Excited for the next phase; I would love to hear how it goes, Kim! (Also, awesome to see you stop by!) Baby steps are A-OK. 😉

  • Isha

    I thought this post was so great that I wanted to share it on Twitter… then found that the headline wasn’t copy-and-pastable – oops 🙂 You might like to get Buffer to change that 😉

    • Hey Isha, great point! I can definitely see how we can improve on that experience. If you are able to right -click on the headline you might be able to copy it; that seems to work for me. 🙂

  • Hi Courtney,

    Definitely a great post! I always use emoticons whenever I send emails or even in chat box, I want to make the people Im talking feel that they are appreciated. Courtney, I would like to convert this post into infographics and hopefully you’ll let me 🙂 I’ll include your post link as the resource page. Thanks !!!

  • Yes. I agree. WE actually teach Daily Money Savings tips using Emoji’s. Great article.

  • nick

    We all need more emoticons in our lives, that’s why I created Mosaic for android. It allows you to create Emoji art from your photos 🙂

  • nick

    We all need more emoticons in our lives, that’s why I created Mosaic for android. It allows you to create Emoji art from your photos 🙂

  • Megan Ridling Haines

    GREAT POST Courtney! I just found a new article that came out saying people who use more emojis have better love lives. Sounds like emoji’s make everything better haha!

    • How interesting! I’d love to check out that study if you happen to have a link handy! 🙂

      • Megan Ridling Haines

        Oh shoot! I didn’t know I had to log back into disqus to see your response. Thought I would get some sort of notification. Sorry I didnt reply 🙁

  • Shelby Clarke

    This is fantastic. I love seeing the reasoning behind using emoticons. I’ve always wanted to use them in emails to make things more personal and not so cold, but never felt comfortable since they don’t seem professional.

  • Janos Szabo

    this app could replace emojis on the fun factor and facial expressions. ClipDis – turns text into movie mashups

  • r d


  • Luna Diamond

    I agree with a lot of these. But for some reason I want to punch a person who does faces like this: c; For some reason I read that as sarcasm.

  • Bjorn

    Thank you for a great post:-) Body language rules…it is global and it is spoken by all ages. So, it is great to get some scientific back-up concerning the use of emoticons as a kind of body language on our screens…

  • Dont know how to include emojis and so I use to upload emojies in JPG format.
    I am very habitant of using images in my comments,
    Thanks for this nice post

  • Robbie

    so strange the world these days. in 100 years I wonder how communication will be.

  • Sajeel

    Hey Countney,
    I just discovered this post, and very late to comment on it but very very interesting post and very helpful,
    I am actually currently researching on emoticons, if you dont mind and have time could you please let me know which article have you referred for point 3: “OK even in business” .. i just want the reference for the article and the find out the results/methodology of it.


    Use Emotions by reflecting on other people’s emotions exactly the amount they use it and flex on it but with limits and normal/natural and avoid negative emotions otherwise if u can’t use them but less and try to reduce them such as angry, sad, tired,feared and guilty you know people don’t love them and they are trying and working on it to avoid them and they do it against it (The Negative Emotions).

  • I was just looking for how you make the different emoticons. I know that alt 1 is the smiley face. That’s the only one that I know.

  • Nico

    it’s 2016 and disqus a commenting system still doesn’t have emoticons.
    Emoticons HIGH TECH SH**!

  • Kelvin Mims Jr.

    ? My favorite emojis are these ?????????

  • Melanie Kennedy

    Love this! I have always thought I used too many exclamation points ?… But, now I think I might use too many emoticons as well! Also, I’ve never really known the right etiquette….do you use an emoticon before or after ending punctuation marks? ?


    I think emoticons are fine in moderation, but emojis I would never say are okay in professional settings. These are the iphone cartoon ones. I personally don’t really understand the point of them and rarely use them, but I do like the classic emoticons. 😉

    • AntoxaGray

      They have just poor style. There are some old ones that look better.

  • AntoxaGray

    Text-based and old pictures that fix font style were better, modern “emojis” are too gаy and they don’t fit text at all, they’re bigger and ruin text flow.

  • palash76

    Too good..I would like to provide a reference to this 7 reasons in this article, which also provides a list of emoji providers.