smile emoji from "The Emoji Movie" smile emoji from "The Emoji Movie" Maya Rudolph plays the unrealistically upbeat smile emoji in "The Emoji Movie." (Photo: Sony)

Science confirms: Your smile emoji does not replace your actual smile

A new study takes a closer look at what happens when we use emojis at work (hint: It's not good).

Everyone smiles in the same language. But not everyone smiles in the same medium, and that might be hurting us.

That's according to a new study from researchers at the University of Haifa and Ben-Gurion University, both in Israel, and the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Inadvertently timed to the recent release of "The Emoji Movie," scientists decided to study whether using smile emojis in text messages between work colleagues elicited the same warm feelings as a face-to-face interaction that includes a smile.

Work colleagues smiling during a meeting."Could you have that 1,000-page memo finished in 15 minutes?" goes over much better if you say it while smiling. (Photo: Jacob Lund/Shutterstock)

The results? For the first time, science was able to confirm that a smile emoji does not conjure those same feelings. Quite the opposite, in fact: using a smile emoji in conversation actually decreases perception of the colleague's competence and inserts a level of distance into the relationship.

It's a phenomenon study leader Arik Cheshin dubbed "virtual first-impression management." He and his colleagues, including co-leader Ella Glikson, conducted several experiments analyzing the reactions to text messages that included smile emojis versus messages that don't. They also measured these same interactions in social settings and found that the emojis actually improved perception.

Perceptions of warmth and competence as a function of smiley use in formal and informal contextsThis bar graph shows perceptions of warmth and competence as a function of smiley use in formal and informal contexts. (Photo: Social Psychological and Personality Science)

"I believe there is a greater gap in what the sender is hoping to convey and what the receiver interprets," Cheshin, a social science professor at the University of Haifa and co-author of the study, told From The Grapevine. "This intention-interpretation gap can be damaging."

In addition, Cheshin and colleagues found that the effects of smiley use on social perceptions occur regardless of the expresser’s perceived gender.

So what's the takeaway here? "I don't think that emoticons and emojis replace actual emotion," Cheshin told us. "They are just different. The emotions are there and will always be when there are humans involved."

Before picking an emoji that fits your mood at the moment, it's better to just use words – at least when you're at work. Or, better yet, just show up and talk face-to-face. You know, like the good old days.


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