Smiley faces should be frowned upon

If we were standing face to face and I said something along the lines of, “I absolutely disagree with you, and I think you’re an idiot,” and then I smiled, what would you do? You would probably think “Smug b*#$*%d” and attempt to smack me around the head.

So what I can’t figure out is why people are willing to do in e-mail what they won’t do in person? Why do people feel no compunction about insulting me on-line and following it up with a smiley face?

Smileys are those concatenations of ASCII characters that are supposed to convey emotion in plain text messages, as in :-). I find it impossible to believe that readers don’t know about smileys, but just in case, 🙂 is supposed to imply lightheartedness as in “I can’t find the ‘any’ key 🙂 .”

Thousands of smileys have been invented for all sorts of things. There are smileys for sadness, :-(, smugness :->, resoluteness :-

, a prognathous jaw :-], a lolling tongue 😛 and a pointy nose :^).

These were once funny, but now they have descended to the nether regions of cultural hell alongside “Precious Moments” figurines and Day-Glo velvet pictures of Elvis.

Out on the Internet there are far too many Web sites that have endless lists of smileys and their “meanings,” and I must confess that I included a list of smileys in my book Navigating the Internet. That was published in 1993 when the whole Internet thing was novel.

In my “any” key example, using a smiley to indicate the lack of seriousness is obviously irrelevant, but you see the same convention used in messages such as “I absolutely disagree with you :-).”

Now ask yourself what that message really means. I contend the message means, “I absolutely disagree with you, but please don’t get serious about it.” That’s a pretty reasonable request, so why beat about the bush? Come right out and say it.

But, of course, context is everything. If the message were in reply to, “Do you think the logo should be in blue?” then the sender would probably not be too upset. But in response to, “You have to marry my daughter, you swine,” the result would most likely be quite different, particularly if someone toting a shotgun delivered the message.

So how are smileys used badly? Many people add smileys to be cute, so “Am I trying to be cute?” should be one of the first questions to ask.

If the answer is yes and the recipient isn’t your mother or a paramour who doesn’t mind a dose of saccharine, then go ahead and look like a half-wit if you wish.

On the other hand, if you are trying to take the sting out of a comment that you can’t figure out how to rephrase and you think a smiley is the way to go, save the message and lie down in a dark room until the impulse subsides. Chances are you will realize you were attempting to be duplicitous.

People write terribly when it comes to e-mail or, for that matter, business correspondence in general. I recently heard of a large organization that retains a staff of four writers just to rewrite memos created by vice-presidents so they can be understood.

So when you receive a message containing a smiley, ask yourself what the sender is really trying to say, and assume that the sender is being deceitful.

When you feel tempted to use a smiley, ask yourself what it is you’re trying to say, whom are you saying it to and what is the purpose. After you choose your smiley, don’t use it. Learn to say what you mean.