Emoji, ❤ them or hate them, they’re not going anywhere. Until recently, emoji were reserved for casual texts to friends and family. But emoji in a business email? Previously the answer was a resounding, “NO WAY!”
But as the generations that grew up texting enter the workforce, they’re bringing emoji with them. So the question remains, do they have a place in business communications? The answer is … maybe.
So let’s take a closer look at some pros and cons of emoji use, including some bright ideas for avoiding ending up in the 💩.
In a world where business increasingly takes place via texts or emails, emoji help us add important emotional cues to our communication.
Some emoji, such as 🙂, are almost universally understood. And they are popular. Each new update from the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit group that promotes text standards across computer systems, brings a plethora of new symbols. Unfortunately, the meanings of many of these emoji aren’t clearly established or understood yet. That kind of ambiguity has consequences in the business world.
But recipients may interpret even the most common of emoji in unintended ways. In a recent article, Jason A. Levine of Vinson & Elkins cited a case where the use of an emoticon (the precursor to emoji) in an internal email concerning an employee’s termination affected the outcome of a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination. The emoticon in question? : )
💡 Stick to the fundamentals. Also, remember that some gestures have different meanings for other cultures. Some may even be deeply offensive! In many countries, for example, the OK hand gesture (a popular symbol) refers to a very private … umm … orifice. The thumbs up gesture is another one with lots of different meanings – again, some of them are very rude. Know your audience, but remember that texts, posts and emails are easily re-shared or forwarded to people you may not know. If making your emotional meaning clear is vital, pick up the phone or video chat instead.
People love emoji. It’s a great way to make a connection in the moment.
The traditional informality of emoji use often means they more accurately reflect the sender’s emotional state than more considered words. Why An Emoji Is Worth A Thousand Words In Customer Service, by Dan Gingiss, documents efforts by several companies to analyze emoji use to generate deeper insight into customers’ feelings and behavior.
That informality of emoji can be a trap, though. The relaxed atmosphere their use creates can tempt users to react in the moment. Trust carefully built up over time can be broken by a single thoughtless – or misunderstood – emoji. A false sense of friendship can lead to oversharing. Understandably, this is a serious threat in a business world where intellectual property and other intangibles make up an increasing percentage of a company’s assets and market value.
The meaning of certain emoji can also be hijacked by the larger community or change over time. The poop emoji is the classic example. Few people realize that it began, at least according to its creators, as a representation for a swirl of chocolate pudding. Unlike personal texts, which tend to be very transient, businesses (ought to) keep communications with clients, vendors, etc. for a long time. And those documents may re-appear at future legal proceedings, arbitrations or negotiations. Remember that 🙂?
💡 Context is everything. An email or text about an upcoming company event is one thing. A negotiation with a potential business partner is another. Think about how long the communication will be retained and how it might be used in the future. And please don’t emoji government officials or state regulators – even if they start it!
I love emoji! They’re part of the way I express my unique identity.
Wired recently traced the evolution of emoji from their origin in 1999. In it, Arielle Pardes cites 2014 as the beginning of the Great Emoji Politicization. Over the next few years, emoji underwent what Pardes describes as a “diversity update.” Different skin tones became available. Emoji depicting same-sex couples and a wider variety of family dynamics joined the roster.
Depictions of race and gender are notoriously tricky, however. In fact, there’s already a push to develop genderless emoji. Although people are starting to share information about preferred pronouns, for example, self-identification remains a complex and deeply personal matter. Even with people you think you know well, you can cause embarrassment or unintentionally give offense.
💡 It’s one thing to depict your own ethnic, cultural or gender identity; but avoid choosing identifiers for others. After all, the images we use to express affinity or disapproval for certain groups or concepts is changing at an ever faster pace.
As I said at the beginning, emoji are here to stay. A favorite sci-fi show of mine even depicted a future culture where they had completely replaced written language. We’re not there yet, though. So in the meantime, 👀 how you use those emoji!