4 [scientific] excuses for using smilies :-)

100% of my readers have already sent e-mails. But I wonder how many of them use smilies… And, how many hesitate to use it. Often I ask myself: “Smilies? Isn’t it childish? Do they fit any kind of e-mail ?” I can finally be at peace: linguistic experts are about to explain the role of smilies, and to give you the best excuse for using them.


The smiley : – ) was born in 1982 on the online bulletin of Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh). The intended use was to mark the humoristic J or on the contrary serious L tone of the message.
The author is a reference: Research Professor in Artificial Intelligence, not to mention the “incremental, exploratory development of complex software systems” he’s involved into. When compared to this guy, you’re just a amateur.
I quote him: when using text-based online communication, we lack the body language or tone-of-voice cues that convey this information when we talk in person or on the phone.  Various “joke markers” were suggested, and in the midst of that discussion it occurred to me that the character sequence 🙂 would be an elegant solution. Respect!

Reason # 1 to use smilies

Their author is a badass, whose stroke of genius scientifically proves his superior intellect.

Scott E. Fahlman, Smiley Lore 🙂


Reproducing a human face on a PC screen is nothing abnormal, it would be a result of evolution.
Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, maintains that this is the result of thousands years of human evolution: the homo sapiens reading my article know how to read facial expressions in order to survive, cooperate and procreate.

In an experiment, babies were given a series of geometric patterns ; the babies stare was naturally drawn to those representing a human face … “So what these emoticons are capturing,” he said, “is this platonic, idealized form of an evolutionary device.” Wait no more: 🙂 and 🙁 show your ability to survive in the modern jungle… Darwin approves.

Reason # 2 to use smilies

You contribute to the survival of yourself and the human kind.


Alex Williams, (-: Just Between You and Me ;-), 29 July 2007


A more academic approach: smilies are like “electronic didascalies”… I ignored the meaning of didascalie before that day: an instruction given to an actor that tells the actor what should be done and in what manner to do it.
Electronic didascalies are an invention of Florence Mourlhon-Dallies and Jean-Yves Colin, lecturer in Language Sciences (Paris III, Sorbonne nouvelle) and lecturer in computer science (IUT du Havre), respectively. Quite impressive, right ?

These smilies recreate “the missing materiality and corporality”, replacing the paraverbal and non verbal. The facial expressions of face-to-face conversations are captured by smilies on the Internet.

Another study (Marcoccia and Nadia Gauducheau) makes a typology of smilies:
1. The expression smilies
• bring a new information on emotional state of the writer
• resolve ambiguities when there is place for interpretation

2. The irony and humor smilies
• show that a message is ironical or humorous

3. The “relation smilies”
• indicate a relationship or attempt of relationship (familiarity, complicity) between the writer and his reader
• maintain the relationship, punctuating the conversation

4. The politeness smilies
• attenuate the threat or hostility of the message

The study concludes that the smiley contribute to communication in three ways:
• repeating an information
• helping to interpret the message (when ambiguities exist)
• adding an information which cannot be found in the written message.

Reason # 3 to use smilies

Smilies convey as much information as written message.


Florence Mourlhon-Dallies and Jean-Yves Colin,
“Des didascalies sur l’internet?”, in Internet, communication et langue française, Hermès, 1999

Marcoccia et Gauducheau,
“Regards sur l’internet, dans ses dimensions langagières. Penser les continuités et discontinuité”


Let’s quote what has been excellently written before:

E-mail goes fast and leaves traces. A perfect means of communication.
If it goes fast, we should write fast.
Writing fast goes together with writing short : let’s keep the essential.
Let’s do short, hence brief.
Brief for everyone, so we can write to more people and more often.
And as we send a lot, we receive a lot.
As we receive a lot, we read it faster… and that’s the rush ! No more time for perspective.

Smilies make your message clearer and more readily understandable. Speed and urgency of modern means of communication are why we use them. “It’s the reign of efficacity. Be direct, use emoticons. It allows to easily resolve ambiguities“.

Especially, it allows to express irony more finely towards your readers. Already at the end of the 19th century appeared the irony mark, that could be put at the end of a sentence not to be taken literally.

Reason # 4 to use smilies

Your messages are faster and more understandable with smilies.


Frédéric, L’email et le paraverbal : les émoticons (smileys), 8 December 2007

Titiou Lecoq, Style et Smileys, 23 October 2008

Irony mark, Wikipedia


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