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Can You Actually Use Emojis in Work Emails?

Updated on June 2, 2022Professionals

Chances are you encounter emojis on a daily basis. These adorable icons are popping up everywhere—in texts with friends and family, social media posts, and even in the movie theater.

But are they in your work emails? And—here’s the more salient question—should they be in your work emails?

Emoji use has risen steadily since their creation in Japan in the late 1990s. For many of us they’re now a normal part of digital communication, but do they belong in the workplace? If you include a smiley emoji in a message to your boss, are you building rapport—or will your boss think you’re unprofessional? How about sending the pile of poo emoji to a colleague?

Whether you’re plagued with anxiety wondering which emojis are appropriate, or you’ve been showering your colleagues with emojis left and right, you’ll want to keep reading.

Today we’re navigating the subtle nuances of emoji use in the workplace and delivering some real answers for this oft-asked question of business etiquette.

Why Do We Use Emojis?

If there’s controversy around emojis in business communication, then why do we feel compelled to use them? Why not forego them altogether?

The simple answer: we want to be better understood.

Email communication is notoriously problematic in that it lacks the emotional cues we rely on with face-to-face or phone conversations. Without tone of voice or facial expressions to guide us, there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding when we read an email. Messages meant to be positive are often interpreted as neutral, and neutral messages are interpreted as negative.

Remember that time you wrote your boss a detailed, well-thought-out email, only to receive a terse, one-line response? Chances are your boss was happy with your work, but their email failed to convey the warmth and approval that a face-to-face or phone conversation would have.

No one wants to be misunderstood or perceived as a jerk, so we’ve invented ways to circumvent the ambiguity of email. According to a 2014 study, we use emoticons in our emails not to directly convey emotions, but as context clues to show the recipient how to interpret our message. (For example, including a smiley after a line that’s meant to be a joke.)

But when you send that winkie emoji to your boss, are you communicating more effectively or could it actually be hurting your cause?

Why You Shouldn’t Use Emojis in Work Emails

We may have the best of intentions when we use emojis in our work communication (greater warmth, better rapport!) but recent research on emoji use has presented discouraging results.

Grimly titled The Dark Side of a Smiley: Effects of Smiling Emoticons on Virtual First Impressions, the study found that:

…contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence. Perceptions of low competence in turn undermined information sharing.

To sum this up, if you use a smiley in communication with someone you don’t know well, they

  • Probably won’t perceive your message as “warmer”
  • Probably will perceive you as “less competent.”
  • Will probably include less information in their response to you because they see you as incompetent

Ouch! That’s a pretty serious backfire. Based on this new information, should we banish emojis from the workplace forever?

Not entirely.

The study also found that a smiley can replace an in-person smile if you already have a relationship with the recipient.

Conclusion? Emojis can be helpful when used in the right context.

Which is great, but now you’re probably wondering what the “right” context is. To answer that question we’ve put together some dos and don’ts of emoji use, and it all comes down to who your audience is.

When NOT to Use Emojis

It’s generally a bad idea to use emojis in the following contexts:

  • With someone you have not developed a relationship with
  • With your boss or other superiors
  • With your clients
  • With coworkers you have an uncomfortable relationship with
  • In a workplace that is inherently more formal (If you’re wearing a suit, you shouldn’t be using emojis!)
  • To fully replace words (e.g., using a heart emoticon instead of the word “love”)
  • In a message with bad news or an uncomfortable request (e.g., adding a frownie after asking someone to work over the weekend may annoy the recipient instead of smoothing things over)
  • In ambiguously worded messages (The best way to avoid miscommunication is to write clear, unambiguous messages!)

When Emojis Are Beneficial

Here are some contexts where you can use emojis to build rapport:

  • With your coworkers if your workplace culture is informal (e.g., at most tech startups)
  • Shooting quick emails to your close-knit team
  • Chatting with your team on Slack or other messaging apps
  • In correspondence with someone at the same level as you who also uses emojis

Here’s a tip: Even in contexts where emoji use is okay, it’s still best to stay away from unusual, ambiguous or offensive emojis. So stick to the basic smiley and limit the smiling poop to your personal texts.

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