Emojis help us convey feelings in our emails, texts and social media posts. But are emojis appropriate in business?
Written communication of any kind lacks cues — tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, gestures — that help our receiver interpret our message.
As the internet emerged and computer use skyrocketed in the 1990s, we began compensating for our inability to convey feeling by using emoticons created from keyboard punctuation marks.
Sideways smiley faces, sad faces, winks and other combinations helped convey the general tone of a message: upbeat, encouraging, congratulatory, disappointment, surprise and so on.
: ) : ( ; ) :-\ : o
Emojis replace emoticons
Thanks to a young engineer who worked at a Japanese phone company, we now have emojis: tiny digital images that began to appear toward the end the 1990s, enabling us to add a greater variety of feelings and meanings to our electronic messages.
The term emoji is a combination of the Japanese words for picture — e — and a character — moji. The plural is emojis.
Emojis not only help express the emotional state or attitude of the writer; we sometimes use them as a substitute for entire words.
Given the limit on characters in tweets and the shortcuts we take with texting, emojis are popular in those spheres as well as in emails.
But are emojis appropriate for business communication?
Emojis can be communication shortcut
We claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, and emojis can be a way to keep communication brief and concise.
According to a 2014 study, we use emoticons and emojis in our emails not necessarily to directly convey emotions, but as context clues that help receivers interpret our message — a smiley after a line that’s meant to be a joke, for example.
Related research views emoticons and emojis as compensation for the lack of facial expressions, intonation, gestures and other body language in electronic messages. Emojis support and clarify digital communication in the same way that nonverbal cues support and clarify face-to-face communication.
An emoticon can soften a message’s negative implications or enhance its positive implications. When used after signatures, emoticons can be interpreted as conveying the sender’s facial expressions, connoting mood.
Contrary to those who might think emojis are the provenance of millennials, one source claims:
Age: Emojis are popular across all age groups.
Gender: Women use emojis more often than do men.
Culture: Both business culture (the difference between a tech company and a municipality, for example) and culture in an international sense influence emoji use.
Use caution with cross-cultural emails
Given the international nature of doing business in today’s world, it’s wise to exercise caution with emoji use and choices.
For example, what you intend to be interpreted as surprise might be perceived as shock to someone in another country. Or a face showing an eye with a blue tear could be intended to imply sadness, but it might be interpreted as sleepy in another culture.
Seventy-six percent of Americans report using emojis in business communication.
What’s the most popular symbol in both personal and work emails? The happy face — or smiley, as we call it. 🙂
Grimly titled The Dark Side of a Smiley: Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions, one study found that digital smileys do not achieve the positive response that real smiles do.
It claims that if you use a smiley in communication with someone you don’t know well, that person:
- probably won’t perceive your message as warmer
- probably will perceive you as less competent
- probably will include less information in responding because you’re not considered competent
Despite the ability of emojis to enhance communication, it can make sense to avoid them in formal business communication, in messages to someone you don’t know well, or when communicating cross-culturally or with a person of a higher rank.
If you do appreciate emojis and count on them to help enhance your messages, be sure you know the implication of the emoji you choose. And know your grammar (words and punctuation) so you don’t have to depend on emojis to create a clear and effective message.
If your workplace culture is informal, if your workplace attire is casual, and if you have informal relationships with your co-workers and other message receivers, occasional emoji use probably is OK.
But even if you interpret your workplace as casual and emoji-friendly, don’t use emojis in place of words, in a message conveying bad news or what might be an unwelcome request, cross-culturally, or if you intend for them to clarify what is an ambiguous message to start.
And remember that the best emails have:
- short words, short sentences, short paragraphs
- standard punctuation
- a line space between paragraphs
- bullets and numbers to organize information
- subheads to make it easy for your reader to visually scan your message
There still are those who don’t consider emojis professional in any setting. When deciding whether to pop a smiley face or a thumbs-up into you message, consider the tone the other person uses. If it tends to be formal, save your emojis for those with whom your communication is less formal.
Have you ever regretted using an emoji in a business email? Please share in the comment section, and consider passing along this post to colleagues.
(A similar post appeared on my LinkedIn page on Oct. 3, 2017)
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