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Are Emoticons a Woman Thing?  by Katie Bicklell
Are Emoticons a Woman Thing?

They’re everywhere you look: winking in text messages, slipping into corporate emails, littering Facebook news feeds. They stare up from computer screens, those frozen grins begging for approval.

They are emoticons, and research suggests their use is highly gendered. The first emoticon was the digitized smiley. It gained popularity in the 1980s after computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested to participants on a message board at Carnegie Mellon University that they should use :( and :)  to distinguish their serious posts from those that were jokes.

Fahlman later lamented, “I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world’s communication channels.” Today, emoticons (derived from the words emotion and icon) include hundreds of symbols that are a common part of computer-mediated communication.

Spring 2014 (Image Noa Snir)

While emoticons tend to be androgynous, there are gender differences among those who employ them. In her study “Expression Online: Gender Differences and Emoticon Use,” communications researcher Alecia

Wolf found that women used emoticons nearly twice as often as men. She also found that women most frequently used emoticons to convey humour (35 percent), while men tended to employ emoticons most frequently to express sarcasm (31 percent). Another interesting finding from Wolf ’s study, published in Cyber Psychology and Behavior, came from her examination of mixed-gender online discussions and groups. She found that in mixed interactions women’s use of emoticons became slightly more like men’s (sarcastic), while the overall usage among male users increased to the point where it was on par with women’s. In other words, Wolf found that both male and female communicators altered their online linguistic habits to match the usage of the other gender when communicating in mixed settings.

The differences in emoticon usage among men and women raise some interesting questions. Is the fact that female communicators use emoticons with greater frequency and for different reasons compared to male communicators linked to the ridicule of emoticons in popular culture? And, if the use of emoticons in some way discredits women’s voices online, should women be encouraged to abandon the emoticon?

This dislike of emoticons was described by Seattle Times writer Paul Andrews in his article “Put on a Happy Face, But Not in My Email.” The technology columnist argued that the use of emoticons is superfluous and unmasks the writer as an Internet newbie. “A well-constructed sentence needs no clarification; emoticons serve no purpose,” wrote Andrews. Indeed, he referred to emoticons as “the smallpox of the Internet,” adding that they relentlessly gobble bandwidth to no benefit.

Eric S. Raymond, author of The New Hacker’s Dictionary, agrees. “Note for the newbie: overuse of the smiley is a mark of loserhood. More than one per paragraph is a fairly sure sign you’ve gone over the line,” he wrote. Likewise, UrbanDictionary compiler Aaron Peckman categorized the emoticon as “the antithesis of intelligent writing.”

This distain for the emoticon was underscored in 2006 when a male character from the animated television series The Boondocks texted a female character. “I sent that bitch a smiley face,” the character said. “Bitches love smiley faces.” The quote went viral, suggesting that the emoticon has been reduced to a flirtation device, a symbol identified as feminine and frivolous. So why are so many women still smiley-ing?

Northern Alberta clinical counsellor Marcia St. Pierre believes emoticons appeal to women, at least in part, because of their ability to act as linguistic softeners. She observes that in social settings, women often weaken their opinions to win acceptance and suggests that emoticons are routinely used for this purpose.

“Sadly, women continue to be taught from a young age that they must be demure and polite,” St. Pierre says. “That women must be pleasant is socially ingrained in our psyches and has a bearing on our communication. Women use these softeners to get their point across, while still maintaining that they are pleasant—never the bitch.” For example, she compares the sentence “You owe me $50,” to “You owe me $50 :).”

“One demands payment, the other is a kind reminder that, when you get around to it, the owed $50 would be appreciated—but only if it’s okay with you!” The reader is less likely to take the reminder of their debt seriously when an emoticon is added, St. Pierre says. While the original statement is assertive, the smiley face creates a mixed message that threatens the writer’s authority.

St. Pierre believes emoticon-ridden statements also carry the risk of being interpreted as “passive aggressive or confusing.” When used in the workplace, she believes emoticons can undermine one’s professional reputation. “Who wants to receive a message from an employee with ‘:) lol’ mixed into the professional content?” she asks.

Although many would agree with St. Pierre’s view of emoticons as unprofessional, they are nevertheless slipping into both business and academic environments.

A 2008 Pew Research report, “Writing, Technology, and Teens,” found that 25 percent of high school students said they incorporated “text speak” into their assignments, despite the fact that most agreed that good writing is fundamental to future success. Still, the students saw a distinction between text speak and real writing, and most believed that text speak had no place in school work.

In the business world, emoticon use is generally frowned upon, with a few exceptions. Linguistic researcher Franklin Krohn, writing in his Journal of Technical Writing and Communication article “A Generational Approach to Using Emoticons as Nonverbal Communication,” recommended that recipients classified as traditionalists (those born before 1946) should not be sent email with emoticons, while those classified as baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) probably should not be sent email with emoticons. Generation Xers (those born between 1964 and 1980) may, Krahn wrote, be sent email with some of the more common emoticons, while those who are Millenials (those born after 1980) may be sent email with a slightly more generous use of emoticons. However, given the fact that over 90 percent of Fortune 100 CEOs are male baby boomers, it could be argued that those climbing the corporate ladder are safest if they avoid emoticons at work.

Emoticons do have their defenders. Rights Media education officer Rosella Chibambo believes we should work together to defeat society’s rejection of language deemed less valuable because it breaks from tradition.

“We are taught to privilege certain forms of expression over others, regardless of substance,” explains Chibambo.

“The idea that using emoticons or Internet slang makes your ideas less credible is really problematic. It highlights the respectability politics that allow certain elite groups to claim ownership over ideas born from the struggles of marginalized people—people whose ideas and critiques are valid and born from lived experience, but who happen to use emoticons.”

Chibambo is alluding to a patriarchal model that may be valued by many feminists whether they realize it or not—one that encourages women to meet traditional standards of excellence or respectability.

Past linguistic alterations illustrate to her idea: The feminist movement has a rich herstory of reinventing patriarchal language to suit its own needs. This widened expression has included the respellings of words such as “womyn” and “grrrl.” Feminists also reclaimed words like “bitch” and “slut,” once devalued for their negative associations. Viewed within a more politicized context, it could be argued that women are adapting the emoticon to suit their communication needs.

In her study, Alecia Wolf did go on to find that women have “added dimensions [to emoticons] to include solidarity, support, assertion of positive feelings and thanks, which were absent of the male-created definition of emoticons and their use.” For example, Wolf suggests that women have expanded the meaning behind the emoticon in the phrase “Good Luck! :)” to mean not simply “I’m smiling” but to convey support, faith, positivity and feelings of hopefulness.

In fact, emoticons may indicate emotional intelligence. When positive emoticons affirm positive statements

(“I so proud of you :)”), or when emoticons obviously contrast the meaning of the original statement to convey humour or sarcasm (“Love waking up to cat farts in my face :( ”), the emoticon is arguably a linguistic strengthener that enhances the recipient’s understanding of the tone behind the text. In a virtual world that disconnects us from facial cues, vocal tones and body language, emoticons may actually give us a better footing and create closer ties.

Still, St. Pierre isn’t convinced. “If this was the only reason emoticons were used, one could say emoticons are used to a benefit. However, this is not the case.”

Emoticons, she maintains, often reflect a socially instilled desire for approval when presenting the user as pleasing or passive. In the end, both views have merit. Everyone who communicates, socially and professionally, should take Chibambo’s advice and consider the power relations implicit in their assumptions about technology and its users.

“We have to look at how classism, sexism and racism inform the way we judge communication,” she says.

“[Although some] women might use more playful language to express themselves, their ideas are no less important, valid.” Furthermore, Chibambo says, “I would rather read a slang-laden tweet that’s honest and speaks to personal experience than one that reads like a press release and offers little in the way of real insight.”

In other words, it may ultimately be more beneficial to the cause of women’s empowerment and equality to promote the acceptance of diverse voices, rather than simply to encourage everyone to communicate in a way that might be more acceptable to those dominating online message boards and corporate boardrooms. 


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