The ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ emoji. Whether you love it or scorn it, you’re probably familiar with its ecstatic expression.
You might even know that this symbol was crowned the Oxford Dictionaries Word (yes, word) of the Year 2015 – and is still the most popular emoji used today. But is it appropriate to use it (or any emoji) in the workplace?
The subject of emojis can be, well, emotive. And this fact – alongside their explosion into our culture and daily lives – has led to an increasing number of our clients posing this very question. (By the way, if you’re also wondering if the plural should be emojis or – as in Japanese – emoji, you are not alone. But no-one’s sure yet.)
Among delegates on our courses, perception of these little pictographs varies, and company culture, nationality, age, individual tastes and the relationship with the recipient all come into play. While some of our delegates dismiss them as childish and unprofessional, others celebrate how they compensate for the lack of non-verbal cues – like facial expressions, tone and gestures – in digital communication.
With so much depending on the context, it is hard to generalise. But we do advise people to proceed with caution.
Start with your readers
Using emojis successfully means starting with the same crucial first step as for any kind of writing: focusing on your readers. Good writing always springs from thinking about the reader, and what they know, understand and care about – and the same rule applies here. So spare a thought for your emoji-recipients.
Consider what you’re writing, and who you’re writing to. If you’re writing in a broad context for a wide audience, inevitably there’ll be some people who are OK with the odd emoji and others who embrace them wholeheartedly. But beware that many will find them jarring or irritating.
It seems unlikely that anyone would load up a government green paper with smileys – which would clearly be inappropriate – but there are still other, less obvious, ways to go wrong.
Emojis: heart them or hate them, they’re here. But should you ever use them at work? asks @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
For example, don’t be tempted to use an emoji simply to ‘relate’ to a younger audience. If you’re trying to present your business as a modern, down-with-the-kids kind of place, you really do need to make sure you’re speaking the same language. And an emoji thumbs up isn’t going to cut it for starters: those kids you’re supposedly down with tend to use that symbol only sarcastically these days.
Don’t get lost in translation
Even in one-on-one conversations, go carefully. Emojis might bypass having to find the right words, but they can mean different things to different people. In a University of Minnesota study, participants disagreed 25 per cent of the time when asked whether identical emojis were positive, negative or neutral.
While the range of emojis is standardised, smartphone manufacturers and messaging apps can interpret and design their icons differently – sometimes startlingly so. This means by the time it pops up on your friend’s device, even your favourite go-to emoji might not convey the meaning you intended. Until very recently, Apple’s interpretation of the cheery grinning emoji could easily be mistaken for a pained grimace. Even now, that emoji comes with a cross-platform warning on Emojipedia. And take a look at these rather different dancers:
Respect your external audience
When it comes to customer communications, your company may have a strict house style and favour a formal tone across all channels. Or, it may relax the rules for certain scenarios. So always check the style guide, if your organisation has one.
Certainly, you should think carefully before using emojis as a creative tool. For example, The Guardian reported that the internet had given USA Today’s experiment with emoji reaction buttons a firm thumbs down. ‘The general consensus was that the juxtaposition of a crying face emoji next to the headline “US hero of French train attack stabbed” was crass, jarring and borderline offensive,’ reported writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett. Though surely the only surprise in that story is that USA Today saw fit to even carry out the experiment in the first place. However familiar the symbols are becoming, there are places they just don’t belong.
Emojis at work: happy face or angry face? Have your say @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
But some places they do – and, used strategically, they might give your business a boost. Experian reports that 56 per cent of brands that used symbols such as hearts or stars in their email subject lines saw a higher open rate. In the right context, a well-chosen emoji would surely have a similar level of success. As well as standing out in an inbox, emojis can convey personality. And, in practical terms, they save space.
Customers want to connect with a human, not a machine. This can be difficult to achieve in written online communications – particularly if there’s a character limit. Perhaps then it’s not so surprising that a Penn State University study showed that using emoticons – those facial expressions created using punctuation marks – increased customer satisfaction in live text chats by 78 per cent compared with plain old text. Emoticons or emojis can provide a visual aid to communicate empathy, standing in for the facial cues we’d use in person.
Empathy also includes respect, though. So gauge the customer’s mood and notice their own style of language before you reach for an emoji. You don’t want to be seen as over-familiar, insincere, flippant or irresponsible. Imagine you really were communicating face to face. Would you actually wink at an angry customer? If you are in any doubt, leave it out.
‘Not sure whether to use an emoji in a customer email? When in doubt, leave it out’ – @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet
Know your internal audience
Among colleagues, a well-placed emoji can be shorthand for easy-to-fill-in-the-meaning responses in the name of brevity and speed. However, there is a tipping point. Just like abbreviations and jargon, emojis are code. Does everyone understand it, and buy into it?
What’s more, if you need to use multiple laughing/crying faces as meta-meaning to indicate you’re joking, check your message. As with overuse of exclamation marks, might it stop a co-worker from taking what you’re saying seriously? If you’re unsure, try writing it out instead, like this: [puzzled face]. If you then cringe, don’t do it.
And bear in mind that social mimicry can be a useful tool, especially when working with different nationalities. In your first exchange with colleagues or clients you’ve never met, feel out what kind of humour or small talk they like first. Let them use emojis first before you load your message with hearts, crying cats or clinking beer mugs.
Could your words do more?
The overriding advice here is to make sure you always use an emoji consciously, not carelessly. This isn’t about being a killjoy: emojis are here, it looks like they’re staying – and, let’s face it, they can be fun. Depending on your organisation and company culture, using them could be a great fit – or utterly inappropriate. But it’s best to see them as a complement to words that work, not as a replacement for them.
And if you find yourself relying on emojis too much, or using them unthinkingly, it’s time to stop … and start making the most of your words again.
Over to you
You’ve heard our take, now it’s your turn. What do you think? Should emojis be welcomed into the workplace, or banned outright? Do you or your colleagues use them at work? Leave us a comment and let us know.
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