If you’ve ever been tempted to include a smiley face in work correspondence, you aren’t alone. A recent survey found that around 76% of American workers use emoticons or emojis in professional communication.
Knowing when it’s okay to use this communication tool can help you build relationships and save you from misunderstandings. Using them improperly can negatively affect how people view you.
How emojis can affect others’ impressions of you
I have a former colleague, Amanda, who communicated with me mostly via text message. She worked from home most days, and this was the fastest and easiest way for us to stay in touch. Amanda had a signature texting style. Whenever I asked her to confirm whether she understood something, or if I double-checked make sure that she received a document from me, she replied using her three favorite emojis: Smirk, Laugh Cry and Okay with a Laugh.
Texting with Amanda so often led me to develop some impressions about her. I assumed that because she used emojis in her correspondence, she must be funny and relaxed. Even when we discussed serious matters, such as confirming the budget with clients or discussing the direction of our work, she used emojis. Over time, I began to wonder whether she took her job seriously.
It didn’t matter that Amanda had great ideas and did amazing work. I had a hard time taking her seriously because replying with Laugh Cry (or any of her other favorites, for that matter) didn’t seem professional at all. Researchers have found that my impression of Amanda wasn’t unique. Their research concluded that study participants considered senders who used emojis to be less competent than their more traditional counterparts.
Emoji-based impressions can be deceiving
When I met Amanda for the first time, I was completely blown away. It felt like I had been texting a different person. She was in a tailored black suit, and she carried a briefcase like a top-tier professional.
When she gave her presentation, she impressed everyone in the office. She outlined the budget, offered suggestions based on marketing data, and displayed projections for the upcoming year in a series of graphs. She was confident and answered our questions by citing her research during the Q&A portion of her talk. She had truly done her homework. If you imagine the ideal business presentation, that was what she gave.
There was nothing playful about Amanda’s presentation. She epitomized professionalism. Surely this was not the same person who insisted on concluding every interaction with a string of smiley faces.
After that, we conducted a survey about emojis at Lifehack
After I met Amanda in person, I became more conscientious about my messages at work. I wondered if I gave my colleagues the wrong impression about my work because of the way I used emojis to communicate. I also wondered how using emojis affected my colleagues’ opinions of others.
I decided that the best way to figure out how my coworkers viewed people who used emojis was to ask. We use Slack to communicate at the Lifehack office, which means that there are plenty of opportunities for emojis to show up at work every day. I interviewed 40 employees to gather their insights about communication at work.
I came to some interesting conclusions.
Serious people tend to use less emotionally involved emojis
Most of my colleagues noticed that people with higher rank in the office, such as managers, avoid using emotion-related emojis like smirks or smiley faces. This makes their texts seem more serious and professional.
Whenever a manager does use an emoji, it’s normally to offer appreciation or support. They favored emotion-neutral emojis, such as clapping hands, or items like a bonfire. If it had a face, our managers didn’t bother with it. Connecting emotions to their communication must have seemed too informal for their position.
My colleagues also agreed that they view sentences without emojis as items that need to be taken seriously. When an emoji is used, it signals that that part of the interaction is supposed to be humorous or entertaining.
Creative people can use emojis to form a completely understandable sentence FAST
Some people take communicating through emojis to a whole new level. They can make simple answers seem more interesting and creative. For example, when we’re trying to decide where we should eat, someone might text an emoji of a burger or sushi roll instead of typing an explanation about what they want.
Some of my creative colleagues can use emojis to string together complete thoughts without using any words. Once I was waiting for a colleague to show up so that I could start a meeting. I sent out a message over Slack to figure out where he was. One of my team members sent me two emojis: a man running and a toilet. I understood. It was simple, creative, and clear, and we didn’t have to go into the details.
The key with using emoji creatively is to think quickly. My colleagues said that when they saw someone spending too much time looking for the right series of emojis, it seemed like they were trying too hard. It’s like when you take too long to figure out a joke. By the time you respond, it’s not funny anymore.
Repeated use = identity
Just as I learned from Amanda, over-using emojis can become your signature. It’s the same as having a catch phrase or a tag-line, emojis contribute to your identity and others’ impressions of you.
We have a colleague who loves using the Yummy emoji. Whenever we have to order snacks, we let him choose first because we assume that he’s a foodie and will know where to find the tastiest snacks.
Unless you want to be known for a specific personality trait or interest, avoid over-using an emoji.
Tips for using emojis in workplace communication
All this discussion with my coworkers led me to a few conclusions about when and how to use emojis at work. Here are the best practices that the Lifehack Team passed on to me:
- Only use emojis in the opening or closing of a conversation. If you want to say, “Hi,” or end your communication, it is appropriate to include an emoji. This can help to reassure others that you are a human being, but it keeps the body of your work from seeming unprofessional.
- If you aren’t certain how someone will interpret your text, an emoji can help. So much of our communication is done over text message and email these days. Sometimes it’s challenging to convey tone and meaning with words, but an emoji can help.
I recently received the style guide for an assignment I was working on, and my collaborator had listed all these strict-sounding guidelines for the job. She included an emoticon at the end of an example that she had given. The emoticon helped me understand that she was trying to lighten the mood, and it reminded me that there was a real person on the other side of the text box.
- It’s okay to use emojis in casual conversation and when you are building relationships with peers. When you are engaging with your coworkers on some non-work related task, like figuring out where to go to lunch or discussing what to bring to the office picnic, it’s fine to use emojis. Their causal tone can make your communication seem friendlier.
These are just a few pointers from our small office, but they illustrate the ways that emojis can affect how others perceive us. There’s a time and a place for them, but it may not be at the end of every interaction, nor would including them in the middle of a formal proposal be a good idea.
Have fun with your emojis. Just be careful about how you use them at work ;)