New research: what that emoji in your email communicates

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New research from Ben-Gurion University shows why you should never use an emoji in business communication.

Researchers Ella Glikson, Arik Cheshin, Gerben A. van Kleef tested emojis with 549 people from 29 countries. Here’s what they found:

  • Participants who received emails with smiley-face icons rated the sender as less competent. While smileys are supposed to make people feel friendlier, they didn’t increase feelings of friendliness.
  • Their responses to those emails were less detailed and included less content-related information than responses to similar emails without the emojis.
  • Photos can increase feelings of friendliness in ways emojis can’t.
  • Recipients of emails with emojis were more likely to assume the sender was female.

Why people use emojis and why they don’t work

These results confirm my own impressions of why people use emojis and why they don’t work.

In my experience, people use emojis, especially smiley faces, and emoticons like : – ) in situations when they are uncomfortable communicating with a person of higher status or authority. For example:

  • An HR recruiter wants to explain that the candidate you’re pursing took another job.
  • Somebody wants to tell their boss that they missed a deadline.
  • A salesperson wants to beg a product development person for help with a sale.

The context of the smiley then becomes “I’m sorry, things aren’t what you wanted or hoped, but please don’t blame me or take it out on me.”

In many of these cases the sender is younger than the recipient. And while the vast majority of businesswomen don’t use emojis, a few do; in my experience, the emoji user is more likely to be female than male. This is why the recipients in the study assumed that people sending emoji-laden emails were female. (Insecure, inexperienced male staff have their own poor communications strategies, but emojis don’t appear to be among them.) Young, entry level staff who are uncomfortable with communicating problems fall back on the tools they have used in the past to deflect problematic communication.

The problem is that while you are trying to communicate “please don’t blame me,” what you are actually communicating is, “I’m not capable of professional communication.” As the researchers found, it backfires — the emoji creates resentment and communicates incompetence.

If you have bad news, just come out with it, and start discussing solutions. You’ll make a better impression.

Never use an emoji in a business email to someone you don’t know well.

When you can use an emoji

Emojis are fine in friendly communications. For example, I use them Facebook communications with trusted colleagues. I might even do this in an email, so long as I know the person well enough to joke around with them. These are typically communications among people with equal status. I’d never use an emoji with my senior managers or high-status people in other organizations. I use them with clients, but only after I’ve gotten to know them as friends, and never when communicating a problem.

Emojis are also fine in informal posts on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, if you are trying to communicate informally or with a sense of humor. Even in these settings, never use an emoji to try to deflect people who are upset — it’s more likely to infuriate them.

In internal corporate social networks like Chatter or Slack, I’d use them sparingly if at all, recognizing that emojis are appropriate for informal, content-light communication only.

I can’t think of any other settings where emojis are appropriate. Can you?

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