For a variety of reasons, the internet is a rather informal medium, which also happens to be used for business purposes. Most of us have used "emoticons" (this expression comes from the words "emotion" and "icon", and are also known as "smileys" or "smiley faces") at one point or another, and there are two main arguments to do so: first, a facial expression is much quicker to express a feeling than plain old words would need; second, quickly written professional emails tend to be short and to the point, and sometimes become ambiguous when it comes to discerning moods. An example we used in our "Quotations and Punctuations" tutorial was the simple sentence "We'll take care of it." Such a short email doesn't give much context, and makes it difficult to interpret the email sender's tone and mood; an exclamation point will add some energy and enthusiasm, but, as you'll learn in this tutorial, resorting to smiley faces in your message can sometimes be a viable option, even at the office and in more formal settings.
In a strictly formal setting, especially when dealing with colleagues and superiors who have not grown up with the internet, adding smiley emoticons to your email may well send the wrong message, and have you pegged as (at worst) immature and gullible - not management material in other words. But fortunately, as newer generations take over the reigns of management across the world, the informality of the online world becomes much more commonly accepted: but although still considered inappropriate by many for the office and the workplace in general, emoticons have a great power in avoiding misunderstanding, and, we think, contribute a tiny role in boosting employee morale.
Studies have shown two things: the act of smiling releases endorphins (the body's "happy drug") in the smiler's body, and smiling is contagious. This makes the case for smiling in the real world, and we don't know of any studies relating to chat emoticons or smiley faces in email messages. But if you monitor your reactions and the tone of people with whom you exchange emails, you'll notice a definite boost in latent happiness when using positive smileys (or even corresponding internet acronyms like "LOL" to express laughter).
Tip: Keep in mind that the ultimate goal of email is communication: to that end, we recommend that you stick to common emoticons that everyone will understand, or whose visual representation is obvious enough to be understood even if one has never seen that particular smiley.
Here are the two emoticons you can safely use, if you deem the environment appropriate: "
:)" and "
:(" - in our experience, these and their variants "
:-)" or "
:-(", are understand by most anyone whose has used an internet connected computer.
Several chat clients and email programs also include the ability to add graphic files corresponding to common smiley faces: in that case, a picture is immediately understood by the recipient, so the only question (which you need to answer) is whether emoticons are appropriate or not in that particular situation (using them when emailing about someone's death will surely come across as casually insensitive).
But if you deal with a more relaxed workplace and clients, or a younger group, by all means, allow these icons to clarify your emails - you will brighten up someone else's day by saying "Thank you :)" (or "Thank you :-)") instead of just typing the words alone.