Beyond Words: A New Language For Business

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For years, using emojis and emoticons in texts and emails was considered unprofessional. But many things have changed in the last couple of years of remote working, and one of those things is the popular use of these colorful and expressive features in work-related communication. These have now become a cultural bridge and serve as a paralinguistic expression of context, tone, and emotion at work.

Non-verbal cues have always been vital for communication. In negotiations, in sensitive conversations, when trying to break the ice with someone new, facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice go a long way in getting people on the same page. In a virtual world, we are denied the privilege of such cues, and perhaps, that is why people turn to these bright pictographs to make themselves understood and forge a connection.

Adobe’s Emoji Trend Report (2022) reveals insights into how, why, and when people use emojis. The survey found that out of 5000 emoji users, 71% say they use emojis at work, and 53% say they have increased their use of emojis at work in the last 12 months. In the same study, 63% of US users said they felt more connected to their team and company when co-workers used emojis to communicate, while making conversations more fun seems to be the top reason why people in the US use emojis in communication at all.

Emojis are clearly useful to enable self-expression, creativity, and connection. But, leveraging the power of this medium is much like learning any new language in a different cultural context. Here are three things to consider as you experiment with this new language at work:

1. Differences in Interpretation

As with any language, emojis are open to interpretation. While 92% of users in the Adobe report agree that emojis can communicate across language barriers, nearly half of the users also reported having sent out emojis that were misinterpreted or taken out of context.

In an Israeli court case, Dahan vs. Shakaroff, a couple interested in buying an apartment sent the landlord a text that included celebratory emojis –  😊 ☄️ 🍾 👯 🐿️   Believing that the couple agreed to get the apartment, the landlord stopped advertising further and rejected other potential clients. When the couple stopped responding to his calls and messages, the landlord successfully sued them for the losses he experienced by taking the property off the market. The emojis sent in this instance were interpreted as a binding contract by the court!

According to Andrea Lehr, a brand relationship strategist, each person has their own understanding of emojis; so while you may use a ‘folding hand’ emoji to express gratitude, the other person might interpret it as ‘praying.’ Some of the most misinterpreted emojis include the ‘prayer hands,’ ‘disappointed but relieved face,’ ‘celebration hands,’ the ‘shocked face’ with the ‘double XX’ where the eyes should be, and the ‘grinning face with smiling eyes.’

Until you are sure you are on the same page as the receiver, it might be best, in this context, to use emojis along with words rather than standalone. This way, you can express yourself in a more nuanced way and, at the same time, avoid misunderstanding.

2. Old or young audience

Studies show that younger audiences think it is usual to use emojis at work, while older folks view it as unprofessional. In the Adobe study, 69% of Gen Z and Millennials were more comfortable expressing emotions through emojis than through text-only messages. Probably because of this, big brands like Dominos, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Disney, PepsiCo, and Goldman Sachs, have been incorporating the language of emojis and emoticons to convey their message on social media and target the younger audience.

Another survey found that young professionals find a colleague to be more fun, approachable or kinder if that colleague uses emojis in communication. However, users who are 45 years or older are much more likely to say that using emojis at work is inappropriate. By and large, older users feel emojis make the sender look unprofessional, annoying, less genuine, and even less competent!

There is a further nuance to this issue. Language adapts with time, and emojis are still evolving in online communication. So is their meaning and cognitive-emotional association. For example, the ‘tears of joy’ emoji were consistently voted the most popular at one point. But apparently, more recently, Gen Z does not think it is so cool anymore. Similarly, the ‘Rolling on the floor laughing’ emoji has also dropped in coolness factor, and the simple smiley face used by older users is even considered sarcastic or passive-aggressive by Gen Z.

So, profile your audience as you decide to send either a traditional text-only message or one peppered with emojis. Digital natives, as the younger users are called, are more comfortable with emojis, no doubt, but they are also more attuned to the latest trends in their usage. If there is a usually relaxed atmosphere in the team, then by all means, experiment with emojis.

3. How well do you know your emojis?

In the Adobe report, 80% of users agree that you should only use emojis if you fully understand their meaning in conversations. Further, they also feel up to date on the latest emojis’ meaning (this number was higher for Gen Z at 93%).

Some emojis, like the thumbs-up sign or heart sign, are well known. But there are lesser-known emojis as well. So, before including them in your messages, it might be worth your time to familiarize yourself with their use and meaning in popular culture. For example:

  • A smiley face 😊 can add some humor. But be wary of the ‘cousin’ – the slightly smiling emoji 🙂, as it’s been branded as a menacing emoji. The eyes were dead, blank, and emotionless. The smile raised but not enough to put anybody at ease.
  • Generally, people use the raising hand 🙌 emoji to praise, but the emoji is actually used to express joy and celebration
  • 🙏 No, this isn’t a ‘praying’ emoji. The ‘folding hand’ emoji is commonly used to say please or thank you.
  • 🙃 Employees often use this emoji to express how their life has turned upside down. According to Emojipedia, the ‘upside down’ emoji conveys silliness, sarcasm, or passive aggression.
  • 😘 and 😚 should be avoided. The ‘kissing emoji’ crept into our work mails, or messages can be misconstrued. Often, these emojis in a conversation are considered evidence of online sexual harassment.
  • 💩 🍆 💋 👅 🍑 are globally off-limits in the workplace and business communication. And the reasons are quite obvious!
  • Typically safe to use at work: 👩‍💼 👨‍💻 🙋😃 😎 🎉 🙌 💡 ✅ ➕ 💼

As a relatively new language, emojis are yet to undergo many changes. With tailored emojis, workplaces create original ways of creative communication and unapologetically bring quirky culture to work. Emojis appear differently on different devices, and confusion can still arise.  If you still have any confusion, we suggest you use  Emojipedia. It’s a source for all your questions, so you don’t accidentally send your boss or colleague emojis better suited for your personal chat. 

About the Author:

Dhannyaa Menon is a Digital News Writer, graduated with a Master’s degree in Journalism from MIT ADT University, Pune. She supports the TAQ team with research, content development, social media, and the delivery of workshops.