Support 100 years of independent journalism.

7 February 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Watch where you put that emoticon AND KEEP YOUR VOICE DOWN

When it comes to writing online, we’re all still working it out as we go along.

By Erika Darics

Emoticons, punctuation and creative spelling have been debated, condemned, and regulated since the very beginning of online text-based communication.

We’ve all seen “netiquettes” on how not to use ALL CAPS BECAUSE IT IS SHOUTING, or not to use smileys, because it is unprofessional. Recently, an article about the angry full stop caused great uproar, and issues about what, how and when to write show that we are still unsure about the conventions of online writing.

A Very British Problem.


Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves though. Online communication may have become absolutely essential to our private and professional lives but it’s still very new.

When we email, instant message or write on forums, the production of the text and the reception of it take place in two completely different contexts. Often we don’t even know where the person reading our missive is, let alone how they are feeling when they read it. When people communicate online, they don’t share the same physical environment, so they can’t rely on signals that would normally help them to understand the intended messages, like the tone of voice, gestures or facial expressions that accompany it.

In face-to-face interactions, non-verbal signals have an extremely important role in conveying how exactly messages should be understood. They can clarify, emphasise, complement, repeat, but also contradict the words we say, signal if something is to be taken lightheartedly or if something is meant to be a serious message. Audio signals, prosody, such as the tone of voice, pitch, rhythm, pause or loudness play a crucial part in this, but facial expressions or body language are also often used.

In digital writing, we have none of these cues available so people have taken great effort to come up with creative and playful ways to somehow replicate or replace these signals. Emoticons are one obvious example but everyone has their own way of making themselves understood, be it by using exaggerated or unconventional spelling, punctuations or capital letters.


A Facebook message from a creative friend.

Both research and mass media have tended to over-generalise and stereotype these techniques, describing them as merely “stand-ins” for non-verbal cues. In an attempt to understand the new rules of communicating, they seek to assign a well-defined meaning to each cue. A smiley is thought to denote a joke or a smile and a full stop or caps lock is seen as a sign of anger.

But the picture is much more complex than this. Consider an email written by your boss, reminding you of a looming deadline:

“Everyone else has already submitted their report. You are the LAST!:)”

Even if you are on very good terms with your boss, the emoticon here clearly doesn’t function as a representation of a smile or signal a joke, and capitals are not meant to be read as shouting. They have a more complex function in communication, and the best way to demonstrate it perhaps is to read the same message without them.

“Everyone else has already submitted their report. You are the last!”

Capitals clearly gave some added emphasis to the message, but the emoticon in particular makes a world of a difference. The first example could be read as a friendly nudge or teasing, while the second, without the emoticon, is a highly authoritative, commanding message. The emoticon isn’t relaying a full-on smile but it is tempering the tone of the message.

In a recent study on e-mails a very high number of emoticons were found not to represent a facial expression in business correspondence at all. Instead they are used as a hedge – a device used to give flavour to certain types of message. And they work in both directions. They can soften requests, rejections or complaints but also strengthen other types of messages such as wishes, appraisals and promises.

The creative ways we use our keyboard to somehow inscribe signals into our writing cannot be simplified to neat lists with assigned meanings. Written non-verbal cues are like capsules of meaning which only get activated in specific contexts. To understand them we usually need to know who is sending the message, to whom and why. The full stop might be angry for someone in one situation or another, but when my husband texts:


I like to think that it means something else for us.

If we write online, we need to keep reminding ourselves that the way we do it has not yet been conventionalised, and we need to consider the wide scale of meanings and possible interpretations of our words and symbols. We’re all working it out as we go along.

Erika Darics works for the University of Portsmouth.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Topics in this article :