THE PRACTICE of adding visual images, such as emojis, to written correspondence is widespread in the world of text messages, social media and emails. This seems to be particularly so among millennials.
The impact that emojis have on the motivation of recipients, however, can go either way, and their use in business communications has come into question. What was meant to clarify sometimes confuses or distracts, and even causes some to assess the professionalism of the sender.
The intent of most users of emojis is, of course, to amplify printed words with visual indications of the writer’s feelings about the topic at hand. To the degree that electronic correspondence is often replacing face-to-face exchanges, a communication can be enhanced by a careful selection of words. And, depending upon the circumstances and who the recipients are, this may be true with emojis, as well.
The problem is how well they work. The meaning of an emoji can be misunderstood. In-person communications are richer interpersonal exchanges. If there appears to be a slip-up, one can readily inquire if something is wrong. Misunderstandings can be more readily averted, on the spot. Technology has also enabled us to observe the other party with live video, although that too sometimes falls short with awkward voice time lags, etc.
So much of what we understand in an exchange with another person comes from hearing the tone of voice and observing body posture and facial expression. In the near future, thanks to artificial intelligence, we will likely be able to get a better sense of the emotions behind another party’s spoken words.
There is reason, however, to be sensitive to some matters being uncovered in research on related topics. For example, in one study, 90 percent of people claimed to have accurately read their emails: in actuality, the researchers’ analyses found only 50 percent did so. In today’s world of multitasking, and hurriedly attempting to get through the sheer volume of communications, it is no wonder there is a gap between perception and reality in receiving a message correctly.
When puzzled by a communication received, including emojis, we have choices: Contact the sender and ask assertively for clarification, using polite, non-aggressive speech. An example: “I wasn’t certain if your “thumbs up” emoji meant I should take the next step or that you would. Would you please clarify that?” Be careful not to immediately presume a worst-case interpretation. The probable outcome (consider your own history with such exchanges) is there will be no serious ill consequence.
Another aspect of the use of emojis is their appropriateness in the business arena. An assessment should be made of the culture when we are writing. For example, a startup organization might welcome the chance to encourage informality and collegiality, whereas a more traditional firm might not, preferring a more formal tone. Also, the business context should be considered. When addressing senior management or a client, opting on the side of formality is probably wise. This might be especially true if one is addressing a serious matter, and using emojis might seem to be trivializing the subject, or one is apologizing for an error, where an “Oops! My bad.”—followed by a sad face — probably won’t cut it. A study reported in a psychology journal found that 39 percent of senior managers think it is unprofessional to include emojis in work communications.
On emojis, perhaps some words of caution are merited: “When in doubt, leave them out.” After all, there is no such thing as “quote, unquote,” there is only “quote, end quote.” So much of one’s motivation is linked to communication that it seems advisable to err on the side of caution.