A recent Cotap Inc. survey showed that 76% of workers admit to using emojis in professional communications. I have mixed feelings about that. There is no shortage of industry blogs, experts, and analyses that will tell you emojis are here to stay and we should get used to them popping up in daily communications. Again, I have mixed feelings. But before I am labeled a spoil-sport, allow me to explain: I have no real problem with emojis, I use them myself. I just haven’t yet been convinced of their usefulness at work. The reasons justifying them seem weak.

Maybe it’s just me, but personally I cringe when seeing them in work emails, and least of all because our email system doesn’t render them properly, leaving a string of gibberish text instead. Allow me to explain further by belligerently running down the classic pro-emoji-in-the-workplace arguments:

“Millennials use emojis in daily communications, and we must adapt to the new normal.”

If you really want to get technical, the emoji originated from the emoticon, which was created in 1982 by a Baby Boomer named Scott Fahlman, predating millennials. Double that, millennials don’t even like to use emojis at work that much – according to a Fusion Poll, more than half (57%) of the millennial-aged respondents thought they were inappropriate for the workplace. That brings me to another point: employees over the age of 65 are more likely than any other age group to say it is “always appropriate” to send emojis to a direct manager, peer, or subordinate.

I receive emojis in work emails from established professionals and who graduated college ages ago, where most of my millennial-aged workers are actually more likely to walk into my office and start talking. Perhaps emojis are maybe not as urgently relevant as marketers would have us believe. The media loves to link millennials to every new tech trend, but making personal connections in person is more what this generation is about in my experience.

“Emojis help clarify intent by attaching an emotion to the message”

The general wisdom is that some messages are ambiguous in the workplace, and emojis can help the reader better discern the intentions of the sender and vice-versa. Suddenly emojis are the key to emotional expression? I don’t buy it. It’s all a little too convenient.

A study from Syracuse University showed that no matter the message, we tend to misinterpret work emails as more emotionally negative or neutral than intended. That negativity bias is more pronounced the further up the hierarchy you go; i.e. an employee will perceive more negativity in a message coming from their boss than a peer. And here’s the kicker – you might think adding a smiley face to your email would clear up any questions about intentions, but I’m here to tell you emojis are misinterpreted just as often as email text. In a Harvard Business Review article on email etiquette, Andrew Brodsky gives a prime example:

“I asked employees for an email that they felt was written very poorly, and one employee provided me with the following message from a manager:

The intro of the commercial needs to be redone. I’m sure that’s the client’s doing and you will handle it :). Warm Regards, [Manager’s Name].

To me as an outsider (and I’m guessing to the manager as well), this email seemed well-crafted to avoid offending the employee. However, the employee felt differently and explained: ‘She knows perfectly well that I made the terrible intro, and she was saying, well I’m sure the client made that segment and that you will tackle it, and then she put a little smiley face at the end. So overall, a condescendingly nasty tone.’”

Yikes! So it seems that emojis and emoticons are not bulletproof methods for communicating tone or intention. That brings me to another argument I read often:

“Emojis can make an average message cheerful and make the reader smile.”

Okay, so I’ve been a little harsh. There have actually been studies showing that adding smiley faces to emails can reduce negative email interpretations. But that’s also exactly what troubles me, if you take my meaning. If people are constantly misinterpreting your emails to the point where emojis are required that often, at what point do you just start writing better emails?

I Second That Emoji

Case in point: in the same Cotap Inc. study, it was shown that 81% of American workers find it challenging to convey emotion in digital communications to those they work with. Here are the top three emotions they reported having the most difficulty with:

  1. Frustration (57%)
  2. Disappointment (39%)
  3. Urgency (35%)

Now, consider the top three most popular emojis in the workplace:

  1. Happy face (64%)
  2. Thumbs up (16%)
  3. Winking face (7%)

How do slapping smiley faces, thumbs ups, and winking faces on everything help employees communicate things like frustration, disappointment, and urgency? The claim is emojis help people express feelings, yet they are regularly used to mask them. They become tools of passive-aggressiveness, a subconscious way of expressing displeasure. They don’t clarify, they add noise. Someone had to say it.

I get emojis. I use them myself in my private life. I just don’t get them at work. But if people feel the need to use them while doing business, I submit that they should consider a few things before doing so:

  1. Consider the context – Is it a deadline situation? Is your team under pressure? Are you in a customer-facing role? There are certain contexts where emojis are plain inappropriate; those times when people just want the straightforward facts. This is what’s known colloquially as “giving someone the business” because it’s what businesses are primarily supposed to do, preferably in a professional manner. Think of an emoji as an exclamation point and ask yourself how often you would use one in work communications.
  2. Consider your audience – The person you’re sending that tatted-up email to – is it a colleague or your boss? Do they use emojis, ever? Perhaps there’s a reason for that. Harvard Business Review pointed out that behavioral mimicry (i.e. using emoticons, slang, and jargon similar to the person you’re talking to) is a proven effective strategy for smoothing out communications across different cultures and settings. Don’t use them with your boss unless your boss uses them first, in other words – you risk damaging your credibility.
  3. Consider the message – If you’re unsure your message will be interpreted correctly by the recipient without the help of an emoji, why not pick up the phone and hash it out instead of reducing your conflicted feelings to a smiley face? If you really are that worried about being perceived negatively, nothing shows that you care more than being sincere and human about it. Trust me, it’s awkward for a few seconds, but at the end of the day things get done more efficiently.

In a Glass Case of Emojis

I really didn’t invent these considerations – they’re the core fundamentals of communications. You certainly don’t have to do anything I’m suggesting, I just don’t see why you wouldn’t. How’s that for a conflicted suggestion? Too bad there is no emoticon to adequately express my frustration. 😉