Put an Emoji On It: Should You Use Emojis In Business Communication?

Business.com / Work Life / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Is there a place for a smiley face in your office? Emojis can provide greater granularity of emotional context. Here's how to use them.

It all started a colon and a parentheses to indicate a smiley face.

Then computers started replacing that symbol with an actual smiley face. 

Next came a whole family of emoji (small faces with smiles or frowns or tears), based on symbols from Japanese comics to express emotion. Most recently, there’s a host of racially diverse emojis. 

The basic idea, of course, is that a picture is worth a thousand words and, perhaps more importantly, can avoid misinterpretation when emailing or texting or messaging an audience that can’t see your body language.

Related Article: 9 Most Effective Apps for Internal Communication

The smiley face provides instant recognition that, “Hey, what I’m saying here is a joke.” In a business context, it adds the meta-meaning that, “Hey, I’m just commenting on the absurdities of the overarching bureaucracy.” Which brings up the question of what your boss really mean when he texts, “If you can’t solve this problem by tomorrow, you and your team are fired. :)”

Putting aside whether your boss in such an instance really is kidding or has a strange sense of humor, are these things even appropriate for business communications?

Part of the answer may depend on your age. If you grew up texting, then it might seem perfectly normal. Then again, for a certain demographic, writing “ur” for “You are” also seems perfectly natural. Maybe it is for short texts where shorthand prevails, but colleagues over 40 are bound to wonder how you got a job when you don’t seem to know how to spell.

Most all messaging programs, even those used in business applications, offer a menu of emoji selections. But just because they are there, should you use them?

All the Emojis Fit to Print

Emoji use might not be such a good idea, as was demonstrated by USA Today, which was widely ridiculed by its decision to provide six, Facebook-designed emoji “Reaction” buttons to accompany its October 9 front page news articles. Ad Week sarcastically commented, “That’s right, in case you were unsure how to feel about the day’s news, [use] the emoji to provide handy emotional cues, like a sad face next to a story about a stabbing, an angry face next to an article about Russia’s misdirected missiles and a big wow face next to an item about Kevin McCarthy’s decision to drop out of the race for House speaker.”

Asked if perhaps the use of emojis for the discussion of serious subjects such as a stabbing was perhaps “too flippant,” USA Today editor-in-chief David Gallaway said the paper wanted to demonstrate how social media icons might look transferred to print. Fellow papers such as The Guardian gave it a thumbs down, with opinion writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett terming it “crass,” and suggesting, “When things are so you bad you have no words, don’t reach for an emoji.”

The Guardian also reports Gallaway’s observation, “Anecdotally, the more digital people are, the more they seemed to like them. They have become an acceptable way of expressing oneself online, in sharing news stories as well as anything else.” He added, however, that emojis were unlikely to ever be used as anything more than an experiment in print news.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Improve Communication During Periods of Accelerated Growth

Emojis Are Not Universal

Even in situations where use of emojis may be appropriate, they don’t always work as intended. The Washington Post reports on a study conducted by the YouGov polling firm that revealed differences of opinion on what certain emojis were supposed to represent. While an emoji may mean “shocked” to one “person” may have signified simply “surprised” to another. Interestingly, even when most of those surveyed agreed on an emoji’s meaning, it wasn’t in agreement with the emoji’s actual intent. For example, what do you think the emoji to the right means?

If you said “crying” or “upset,” you could use that emoji to talk to the majority of the survey respondents. That’s what they thought too, because the blue tear seemingly indicates a state of unhappiness. But, actually, according to Emojipedia, it means “sleepy.” Because, as Megan Logan points out in Wired, the blue tear isn’t a tear at all, but is actually a “nasal bubble,” which in Japanese anime/magna iconography that denotes sleep

Emojis Are in the Workplace, Like It or Not

Still, 76 percent of Americans reported using emojis at work, according to The Atlantic. Not just because younger workers are making up a larger percentage of the workforce, but also because of the widespread adoption of collaborative office tools such as Slack that promote casual work interactions and emoji use. For people who aren’t sure of their communications skills in writing, emojis serve as a sort of visual indicator of “this is what I’m trying to say,” especially during periods with heavy workloads when you really don’t have time to say it.

When to Use Emojis at Work

Whether you should use emojis work depends on context. If your workplace is informal, emojis are probably okay, particularly if your co-workers use them frequently. Many companies have style guides that spell out whether or not emojis are acceptable. If you don’t have a style guide and you’re new to the job, monitor your inter-office messaging and if you see others doing it, then you can assume it’s okay for you as well. Or just ask someone.

Don’t use emojis with people you don’t know very well. Be careful when messaging your boss, and particularly with customer communications. If you don’t have a comfortable relationship with someone, best to avoid something that could potentially annoy them.

Related Article: How to Improve Workplace Communication to Further Success

Know your demographic. As Userlike points out, older people may not be uncomfortable with emojis, and may not even know what they mean.

If someone has a serious complaint or issue, emojis are definitely inappropriate. Above all, don’t use an emoji if you aren’t certain what it means. Remember the lesson of the mom who thought “LOL” meant “Lots of Love”—really not the sort of thing to send to someone in a text saying you’re sorry someone’s aunt just died.

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