A post on the register of e-mails is going around, although it’s not phrased that way. Instead it’s discussing e-mail etiquette. Many of the suggestions are perfectly valid — to heed the negativity bias, to check your grammar, to consider phrasing things nicely. One of the suggestions is to use emoticons in your e-mail messages to better convey tone.
Emoticons are discourse markers, there’s no doubt about it. They add an extra meaning to an utterance — they convey the tone of the message, whether it be sarcastic, teasing, heartfelt, or angry. They are a useful tool, but much like profanity, must be used with care. They index a particular register, and certainly a particular casualness, that isn’t always appropriate.
E-mail serves multiple functions as a linguistic medium. On the one hand, it’s the most formal of computer-mediated communication in most people’s lives. E-mails are like letters — you have time, you take care with your words, you often include salutations and closings. This formalness of the medium and the time given to it aligns to using more formal language. However, e-mail is frequently used between friends or people who eschew letter-writing conventions, and in this it can also function something like a note being passed in class. This usage requires different language.
If you are applying for a job, for example, and have never had e-mail correspondence with the person to whom you are e-mailing your resume, you probably don’t want to include a :). This presupposes casualness that is not appropriate in this context, since your e-mail is acting like a cover letter for a job application. However, addressing your best friend “To whom it may concern” is almost certainly as inappropriate, if not more.
There is considerable gray area, too. I have been known to use emoticons in e-mails to my advisor; however, my advisor is well-acquainted with my work on online language use, and has even previously used emoticons in e-mails himself. Furthermore, I feel confident using slang and other casual language in his presence, so emoticons seem appropriate. On the flip side, I have had students e-mail me in a slew of netspeak, including emoticons, to ask when their homework is due. I feel that this is inappropriate, although including one well-placed emoticon to carry the tone of the message may be acceptable. I’ve received e-mails from some close friends that include nothing but an emoticon, e.g. :DDDDDDDDDDDDDDDDD.
So while emoticons do carry some important information, they can’t be considered for use in all contexts, just like most other language that we employ on a daily basis. I, generally, encourage the use of emoticons, and would be amazed (in a good way) if they made it into the formal end of e-mails. As the years go on, we may see emoticons being used in more contexts as we, as people, begin to understand how useful they are.
Using emoticons in spoken language might be perilous though, as T-Rex recently discovered.