Smile(y) and the whole student body will smile with you

smiley scaled
CC0: Pixaby, geralt

In the first post this month, Ben Marder, a lecturer in the Business School, explains why his use of smiley faces in emails is encouraging genuine relationship development with his students…

Teaching is all about communicating. Therefore if teaching matters, communication matters. In universities, communications with students beyond the classroom are predominately through email or virtual learning environments. This blog post makes a research-based case that smiling in the classroom is not enough – we should use smiling in our emails too.

As a millennial, and one who researches digital technologies, emoticons, emojis and ‘txt speak’ is second nature. For me, smileys 🙂 are always better than full stops. I use them regularly in my correspondence with students and staff to be friendly, as I would family and friends. I didn’t think much about it until I received a few comments from students saying how they liked my style of emails. One student said they felt like they were being sent an email from a person rather than a ‘robot’. This got me thinking: why aren’t smileys used more widely by staff?

So, I did some research on why staff do and do not use smileys when writing articles and writing to colleagues. The general feeling was that they are too informal, and can make the sender look less professional. But surely they make staff seem more friendly and human? In essence, the use of smileys seemed to be a trade-off between being perceived as more friendly at the expense of being seen as less professional. I became interested in understanding whether this trade-off was in favour for or against the use of smileys, and decided to conduct some further research into this.

The rationale for this research was two-fold. First, student evaluations of teachers are highly important for the functioning of universities and their ranking position in league tables. Recent work has found that the outcome of evaluations mainly depends on the impression given off by the teacher, for example, they may appear friendly and approachable. Second, students now predominately belong to Generation Z (those born after the mid-90s). Generation Z students have grown up as digital natives, and are fluent in, and normalised into, a rather informal tone of online communication, such as is used in social media and messengers.

I headed a series of six studies with colleagues at Copenhagen Business School and the University of Birmingham, which included experiments and interviews aimed at understanding if staff should use smileys. The results are rather conclusive. Although there is a very small drop in the perceived competence of a staff member if they use smileys, this is outweighed by the warmth they give off. Furthermore, our findings show that using smileys in general emails, supervision emails and online feedback leads to more positive teacher evaluations and a more favourable response if students are invited to undertake a task (e.g. do a survey, help out on an open day). More so, our results largely hold irrespective of the sender’s job title, age, or even the prestige of the institution.

In essence, I urge staff to ‘get down with the kids’ and use smileys in their communications, in the same way they would smile when talking to students in real life. Of course, there are some considerations – how many to use, what about other forms of emoticons such as sad faces :-(, and in what contexts are they (not) appropriate. These are all questions that we, as staff, should discuss between ourselves and with our students.

You can see Ben talking about his research on smileys on 11th June, from 2-3pm, at University of Edinburgh Business School (Room LT1A). Book your place here.

Ben Marder

Ben is a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Edinburgh Business school. He is head of year four and course organisation for undergraduate dissertations. Ben’s research expertise is in social media and has published in using technology as a support mechanism.


  1. Hi Ben, thanks for a really interesting article. I’d be interested to know if there was any difference in the results depending on the staff member’s gender?

    • I had the exact same thought regarding gender and would like to know how gender was taken into account in the research.

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