image of emoticons

Emojis at work? And other texting nuances

July 27, 2023

We know that the use of emoticons increased as texting became more integrated into day-to-day workflows alongside emails, calls, and face-to-face meetings. Texting your coworkers over Microsoft Teams is also becoming more common in remote work. The details of a text, like phrasing, punctuation, and emojis, can cause wild miscommunications. The following are two examples from my personal work experience.  

 The “well go buy it” catastrophe of 2019  

Well go buy it  

We’ll go buy it  

In college, when my manager had written in a group chat that we needed more paper, I wrote, “well go buy it,” and set off for the store with my coworker. I thought I had written, “we’ll go buy it.” My manager believed that I had sassed her in front of all the other women on the project. In my next one on one, she sternly told me that it is not appropriate to express frustration in group chats and we talked past each other for at least five minutes before sorting it out and laughing it off.  

Another example is when my coworker wrote to me: 

This is the last time I’m going to ask.  

She meant to say something like, “I promise this is the last time I’m going to ask,” in an attempt to express that she was cognizant of her responsibilities and a little stressed out. To me, however, it sounded like she had insinuated that I had repeatedly ignored her and was punitively waving her pointer finger at me. 

These particular miscommunications both happened with young coworkers in college, but they permeate all relationships that involve texting, including those in the workforce. Even though texting miscommunications certainly happen with people of the same age, generational differences can exacerbate the frequency of these issues, as Tomoko Yokoi explains in her article from Harvard Business Review and Forbes questioning the roles of emojis at work. [1]

Five good practices when using emojis at work

Yokoi’s article describes emojis as an “intergenerational and cultural minefield,” and stipulates that the business community is reassessing standards of professionalism in the workplace.  

She offers five pieces of advice 

  1. Get deeper insight into how your team is feeling  
  2. Build your own cognitive empathy  
  3. Model appropriate emotions  
  4. Reinforce your company’s culture  
  5. Minimize opportunities for offensive behaviors  

There’s a well-documented phenomenon that Millennials and Gen Z drop periods so frequently that adding them to a text message insinuates anger. Older generations still use periods frequently at the end of their sentences. Grandma typing, “No. Don’t buy bread.” would seem normal, but a Gen Z person writing that probably intended to insinuate that the receiver hadn’t been listening to them.   

Sometimes these issues are silly and superfluous. However, emoticons, or the lack of them, have the power to deeply affect the workplace culture.  

To Emoji, or not to Emoji? 

Emojis are a powerful tool in written communication, especially in texting. They are rarely used in emails and surveys at the University of Amsterdam suggest that it’s a bad idea to use emojis in emails. “Smiley faces in texts or emails may not help you seem warmer but may make you seem less competent.” [2]

Alternatively, Yokoi suggests that emojis are helpful in creating an inviting and engaging workplace culture. Emojis are sometimes perfect for providing comic relief and a warm, open atmosphere.

My approach to emojis and all workplace communication involves assuming that my coworkers have the best intentions. If a coworker sends an emoji with two hands, I assume that it’s saying hi instead of giving a hug because it’s not worth it to me to expend emotional energy worrying about my coworkers’ emojis. 

Alternatively, if an emoji offends you, then it’s perfectly okay to ask your coworker to not use it moving forward. You could also ask what they mean by it and let them know what that emoji means to you.  

Awareness of cultural differences 

If your company operates in a different part of the world, it may be worth doing some research into potential cultural differences. For example, if you are an American that does business in China, you should know that the angel emoji that means “innocent” to you may mean “death” to your conversational partner. 

A simple thumbs-up emoji may seem like a safe bet, but some can see it as passive-aggressive, meaning something, “good job, screw up.” If you’re not sure, ask. No culture, whether generational or regional is a monolith. 

Minimize opportunities for offense 

Minimizing opportunities for offense primarily means modeling appropriate emotions. We already know that in the workplace, we should be constructive with feedback. Therefore, we should take care in our emoji use of negative emotions like anger or sadness, to make sure we aren’t using them to be overly confrontational.

We also know that it is important for people to feel safe and secure in the workplace. Therefore, avoiding emojis that are culturally associated with sexual or romantic themes is usually a good rule of thumb.  

Emoji, but use Emojis at work responsibly 

In this article, we explored how using emojis and other texting conventions in the workplace are topics that continue to garner attention and debate. While emojis have undoubtedly become integrated into modern workplace communication, they also hold the potential for miscommunication. So, to have the various ways people use or don’t use punctuation or other standard grammatical conventions to communicate subtext. However, by cultivating empathy and cultural awareness, and learning ways to minimize offense, we can use emojis and such texting conventions, while respecting our coworkers and maintaining professionalism.  

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