Emoticons and Interprofessional Education: A Topic for Research?

By Lindsey Wright* & Hassan Soubhi

Interprofessional Practice and Education (IPE) helps understand how groups of professionals from different fields learn and work together. A key factor in achieving IPE is making certain that the different members of the group form a cohesive working relationship using as many tools as possible. In today’s technological society, diverse people need to find ways to communicate effectively. This can be from many technological platforms such as collaborating information through online classes and message boards, social networking, and more.

One way to optimize communications may be with emoticons. Attitude towards emoticons is as variable as the people who use them. For example, a manager might send a quick email or text to an employee that lets the person know they are doing a good job and add a smiley face at the end for added effect. Similarly, a team leader might have to let his or her team know they will be working late and add a frowny face to let everyone know it’s an unpleasant job, but it needs to be done. Using emoticons in this way may help to foster a positive work environment and allow all the different members of a team to feel connected.

In particular, younger members of a group are more likely to use emoticons more often than older team members. Having grown up in an environment in which texting and symbols often replace real speech, younger members use emoticon to add a tone to a sentence that might otherwise be misinterpreted. For example, when sending an email message about an error, they may include  an emoticon at the end of the message to indicate the benign nature of the error.

Several lines of research evidence from neuroscience suggest potential explanations for how emoticons might have these effects. Research indicates that our brains are able to mirror not only other people’s emotions (what they feel), but also their understanding of things (how they see things cognitively). Research also suggests that people make personality inferences from facial appearance despite little evidence for their accuracy, and an important part of the mirror neuron system seems even implicated in persuasion.

However, experts remain divided about whether emoticons might be used both within a familiar setting and in professional correspondence. In the blog “The Work Buzz,” author Kaitlin Madden addresses the importance of being professional in correspondence, specifically stating that emoticons are strictly forbidden, as well as “text abbreviations,” such as LOL (laughing out loud) or using “B” instead of the word “be.”

In the end, using emoticons seems to be based upon the sort of correspondence being sent, as well as the relationships between sender and receiver. Someone wanting to send an informal email to a colleague might be perfectly at ease with adding an occasional emoticon to the message. On the other hand, someone sending a letter to a potential client or to someone involved in a professional capacity will want to stay away from using emoticons or anything that might detract from the message itself.

As for IPE, if IPE is about learning with, about, and from each other, then emoticons might have a role to play in optimizing that learning. Considering how many times we use e-mails in our daily communications and the great strides that neuroscience is making in understanding how the brain affect our communications, there seems to be a limitless supply of research questions to answer. How effective emoticons are in promoting a positive work environment for IPE is one of them.

*Lindsey Wright is fascinated with the potential of emerging educational technologies, particularly the online school, to transform the landscape of learning. She writes about web-based learning, electronic and mobile learning, and the possible future of education (http://www.onlinecollegeclasses.com).


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Madden, Kaitlin. “7 Tips for Improving Email Etiquette.” The Work Buzz. CareerBuilder.com, 6 June 2011. Web. <http://www.theworkbuzz.com/on-the-job/work/office-etiquette/improve-email-etiquette/&gt;.