What you know about emojis is wrong

That little smiley face may be here to stay, but it doesn’t belong in workplace correspondence. Not because it isn’t appropriate, but because it gets in the way. (And don’t blame the millennials!)

More than 75 percent of workers admit to using emojis in professional communications, according to a Cotap Inc. survey. I have mixed feelings about that.

There is no shortage of industry experts who will tell you emojis are here to stay and we should get used to them. Again, I have mixed feelings. Before I am labeled a spoilsport, allow me to explain. I have no real problem with emojis; I use them myself. I just haven’t been convinced of their usefulness at work.

Allow me to explain further by knocking down the classic pro-emoji-in-the-workplace arguments:

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

Actually, most millennials don’t like to use emojis at work. According to a Fusion Poll, 57 percent of the millennials responding thought they were inappropriate for the workplace. In fact, 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. That makes sense when you consider that the emoji originated from the emoticon, which was created by a Baby Boomer named Scott Fahlman, way back in 1982.

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

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

The general wisdom is that some workplace messages are ambiguous, and emojis help the reader better discern the intentions of the sender. Emojis are the key to emotional expression? I don’t buy it.

A study from Syracuse University showed that no matter the message, we tend to misinterpret work emails as more negative or neutral than intended. That negativity bias is more pronounced as the message sender moves up the hierarchy, i.e. an employee will perceive more negativity coming from their boss than a peer. Here’s the kicker: Emojis are misinterpreted just as often as 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.

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

OK, there actually have been studies showing that adding smiley faces to emails can reduce negative email interpretations. But that’s also exactly what troubles me. If people are constantly misinterpreting your emails to the point where emojis are required, 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 percent of American workers find it challenging to convey emotion in digital communications. The top three emotions they reported having the most difficulty with:

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

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

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

How does slapping smiley faces on everything help employees communicate their frustration? Emojis allegedly help people express feelings, yet in reality they are regularly used to mask them. They become passive-aggressive tools, a subconscious way of expressing displeasure. They don’t clarify, they add noise.

A version of this post first appeared on TLNT .


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