Emoji Meanings at Work
The Power and Pitfalls of Symbols in Business Writing
Emojis are everywhere. No longer confined to messages between friends, these colorful faces, objects and symbols are now common in business emails, texts, instant messages – even press releases and ad campaigns.
Emojis offer effective and fun ways to interact with others as part of your job. Used well, they can become an engaging and creative addition to professional communication.
However, like any language, you need to "speak Emoji" with care. If not, you run the risk of creating confusion, conveying the wrong impression, or even causing serious offense.
In this article, we'll explain how to use emojis to add clarity, impact and warmth to your messages – to improve the way you communicate and connect with people at work.
What's the Origin of Emojis?
Emojis are descended from emoticons – images made by combining standard keyboard characters, such as :) to represent a smiling face, or ;D to suggest a wink.
In the late 1990s, Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita took this idea a step further by creating a set of 176 ready-made images – initially for cell phones. These became known as "emojis," from the words for "picture" and "character" in Japanese.
Most communication devices and platforms now offer a large set of emojis, which you simply click to use in a message or response.
When emojis grew in popularity and began to be used worldwide, they were recognized by the Unicode Consortium – the body that standardizes all characters used in electronic communications. So although emojis may have a slightly different appearance on different devices (which is often protected by copyright law), each has a universally-agreed digital code that anyone can use.
The Benefits of Using Emojis at Work
Here are some of the reasons why emojis are so popular among professionals:
Efficiency – one well-chosen emoji can replace many words of text. For example, you could select an emoji of a house to set your status as "working from home." Or a thumbs-up emoji might save you from writing out your agreement to something in full.
Clarity – a picture is often easier and quicker to understand than a written explanation. And when you can't hear someone's tone of voice or read their body language, an image can be particularly helpful for clarifying their meaning.
Impact – emojis are clear, colorful, and designed to convey a single message memorably – which has been shown to increase interest and engagement. They stand out among text, especially when the recipient is working quickly or on the move. And they're effective for provoking a response, as people can reply simply by sending another emoji in return!
Universality – many emojis mean the same thing to everyone, everywhere. So they can break through language barriers, and promote easy, natural communication. For example, a smiling face emoji will let anyone know that you're happy, whatever language you speak! However, as we explore later in this article, there are some important exceptions to this.
Originality – emojis are visual and quirky, and they're often used in highly imaginative ways. In the right context, they can become puzzles to unravel, visual jokes, or ways to mark creative connections.
And many companies find clever ways to use them for marketing and branding. Chevrolet wrote an entire press release using only emojis. And one of Domino's most successful campaigns let people order pizza simply by texting the pizza slice emoji.
Connectivity – emojis can help you to show your human side, making you seem friendlier and more approachable. What's more, the brain reacts to images of faces, and to real faces, in a very similar way.
So emojis can inject your text communications with some of the same personality and emotion that you'd aim for if you were engaging with someone face to face. They can also create a shared language that sets the tone for a company's culture, and helps people to feel "at home" within their organization.
How Are New Emojis Created?
New emojis are added to the official list every year, often inspired by topical events. For example, the syringe emoji was updated in 2021 to better represent COVID vaccination.
Emojis are also created in response to popular demand, and to reflect changes to social norms. The list for 2020 contained new gender-neutral characters and more variations for family groups, plus extra options for skin tones.
And as well as the thousands of official emojis, many messaging platforms have versions of their own to choose from. These can often be customized, giving you even more subtle ways to get your message across. There are also apps that allow you to invent creative and distinctive emoji-style characters of your own – such as Angel Emoji Maker, Bitmoji and piZap.
Are Emojis Unprofessional?
Alongside all the potential benefits of emojis that we've listed above, there are also dangers you'll need to guard against.
For example, using emojis before you've established your credibility with someone can make you look unprofessional or incompetent.
And even when you've built trust, a poorly chosen emojis can cause problems, because many of the images are not universally understood. For example, a red-faced character could be angry, or embarrassed. Hands together might represent saying thank you or praying. And the crossed fingers emoji means good luck in some places, but it’s seen as an offensive sign in others.
The more options there are to choose between, the more complications can arise. For example, there are issues of gender and race to consider. These details can show inclusivity, reflect diversity within your organization, and allow people to express themselves accurately. But what if they're seen to highlight differences instead – or even lead to accusations of inappropriate "cultural misappropriation"?
And, as with everything technological, glitches can occur. Emojis may display differently on different platforms or devices, changing vital details – along with the message you intended to convey. For example, emojis can display differently on Android and iOS systems. And some may not transfer at all, which can make you look careless, and damage your communication even more.
7 Steps to Using Emojis Effectively at Work
Here are seven ways to benefit from the power of emojis – while avoiding the pitfalls:
1. Learn the "Rules"
Before using emojis as part of your job, see how other people do it – both in your industry, and in the place where you work.
If emojis are rare, this may be because they're seen as inappropriate or unprofessional, and you should be wary of using them at all. On the other hand, if they're popular, not using them could make you look standoffish or out-of-touch.
Notice the most common emojis and stick to those initially, then expand your range as you observe how other emojis are used.
2. Follow Others (Up to a Point)
When you're communicating with someone new, wait until they include emojis in the conversation, then loosely mirror the way they use emojis as you build rapport.
However, if they include more emojis than you're comfortable with, resist the temptation to copy them – stay true to yourself. Remember, using an emoji that you don't understand could backfire badly!
3. Choose Your Moment
Decide whether emojis are appropriate for each individual communication. If your message is formal, or the subject matter sensitive, emojis will likely look ill-judged, crass, or even offensive.
But if the communication is friendly and positive, emojis can clarify and strengthen your message, while adding interest and warmth, and boosting trust. Empathy expert Mimi Nicklin has described the reassuring power of a thumbs-up emoji, for example, when someone is feeling vulnerable. Mind Tools Club and corporate members can listen to her Expert Interview, "Softening the Edge."
4. Consider the Impact
Think carefully about how other people will likely interpret your emojis. Will they approve of and understand them? This can be unpredictable, as emoji meanings – and people's reactions to them – can change quickly, and often differ greatly between age groups.
Avoid attempting subtle effects such as sarcasm, as these are particularly easy to misinterpret.
You'll also need to consider whether details such as skin tone or gender could affect the impact of your message – and adjust your settings accordingly.
5. Use Emojis for Emphasis
Emojis are best used to strengthen or clarify a message, rather than to express it on their own. Single emojis stand out clearly and memorably. But using a string of emojis as a "code" for the reader to interpret can quickly become tiring, and be easily misconstrued – so leave that to the experts!
With emojis, in most cases, "less is more."
6. Don't Send Mixed Messages
Many emojis provoke emotional reactions, particularly the faces. Take care not to combine them so that they clash – for example, by putting a smiling face and a surprised one side-by-side. You may know what you're trying to say, but the other person will likely be confused, or get the wrong impression entirely.
Avoid emojis that jar with the overall tone of your communication. And always resist the temptation to soften a difficult message with a light-hearted emoji, as this can seem patronizing and unsettling.
7. Keep it SFW (Safe for Work)
Many emojis have a range of possible meanings, some of which may be highly inappropriate for work! So keep your emoji knowledge up-to-date to avoid causing embarrassment or offense. (Emojipedia is the official source of information about emojis.)
And however relaxed your workplace seems to be, never use an offensive or insulting emoji there, even as a joke. As well as risking upsetting others and damaging your reputation, you can face the same repercussions as if you'd put your meaning across in words.
Used well, emojis are an efficient way of communicating at work. They can also add clarity and impact to your messages, and help you to connect with people in fun and original ways.
However, emojis can have different meanings to different people. And if you use emojis inappropriately, you can appear incompetent, careless or even offensive.
Start by noticing how emojis are used generally in your sector and organization. Then loosely mirror the way other people select and share them.
Use emojis to reinforce what you're saying, rather than to convey a message on their own, and keep checking that your meaning is clear.
Only choose emojis that you fully understand. And be as careful with your emojis as you are with your words!
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