There’s a certain presumption of civility and soberness in formal communications such as business letters, cross-cultural and known interpersonal issues notwithstanding.
The same doesn’t apply to informal communications such as e-mails, forums, or chats. With those, we tend to let our inner insecurities, life experiences, and preconceptions colour what we read and, in turn, affect how we respond. A benign e-mail or post gets misread and misconstrued until we’re taking offense or presuming meanings and nuances that don’t exist. (Cyberstalking, anyone?) There are no body language or facial expressions to help us interpret the intent behind the words. “Smiley-enhancing” is the bared-underbelly of the writing world — “See, I’m not a threat, you can read me without worry.” It won’t always prevent people from reading you the wrong way (my experience in that online chat yesterday underscores that), nor does it prevent people from deliberately misrepresenting themselves, but it goes a long way towards circumventing those experiential biases we all have and making the Interwebs a civilized frontier.
My trip to Toronto in April was the first time I’d experienced that in person with someone whose been around me in Real Life™. I won’t go into details (both because they’re really boring and because, well, sometimes the blogosphere has big ears), but I’d never realized before how much someone can completely misread your body language in person. A real smile or wink doesn’t always convince people that you’re being funny (plus they have to be looking at you to see it). You can really laugh out loud but it isn’t as disarming as a LOL.
The whole situation was disconcerting and made me wonder if I’d completely lost my ability to socialize in person. (That’s the downside to being a hermit.) It also demonstrated to me how much I’ve come to rely on smileys and how much I need them in Real Life™. Either that or I just need to practice my socializing skills on, you know, real people…in person. (Not that you’re not all real…well, I presume you are but then I could just be talking to myself.)
(I know. I lied about smiley-enhancing this post.)