Emojis in Professional Communication: The Future or the Downfall?

If you haven’t heard of the Party Parrot emoji, it’s a neon parrot head with a special groove—modeled after this video of a parrot named Sirocco. When I first saw Party Parrot in a group Slack channel, I thought, “Why?” But when I started to use it, I felt a strange affection for the emoji. Party Parrot instantly communicates, “Love it, this makes me happy,” in zero characters.

Emojis, brightly colored symbols that can mean much more than their diminutive presence, are becoming increasingly common in the workplace. According to a 2019 survey of 1,000 US adults by Adobe, 61% of serial emoji users now use them in professional communication. The symbols can appear in texts, app messaging, emails, and professional social media platforms like LinkedIn.

But these little symbols can cause big debates, especially among coworkers of diverse ages and origins. Are they too informal, or do they bring warmth and humor? Do they help us understand each other, or are they too easily misinterpreted? Most importantly, do they improve communication or break it down? 

Let’s discuss the benefits and challenges of emoji use, when (or not) to use them, and ten commonly-used workplace emojis. Whether you already embrace emojis, resist using them, or decide to test them out in specific circumstances, the choice is yours.

Angle 1: Emojis strengthen communication

Even if you work in an office and not remotely, a lot of work communication is digital. This brings a certain challenge when it comes to conveying emotions. In-person conversations come with facial expressions and body language that helps us show each other happiness, support, or sympathy. Cold, hard text can make communicating nuance more difficult.

Emojis can help us communicate emotions and tone digitally. For example, a Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes emoji (😊) after a simple “thank you” message shows that it is not an auto-reply—that the favor warmed the sender’s heart and put a smile on their face. Or a chorus of Clapping Hands emojis (👏) in response to a big company announcement communicates “bravo!” simply and effectively.  

Since emojis are an international phenomenon, they can also help workers communicate meaning across language barriers. When used correctly, they can ensure the recipient of the sender’s intent. For example, the Folded Hands emoji (🙏) can help soften a request, showing it is an ask, not a command. Modern communication can be simpler, speedier, and more effective with emojis.

Angle 2: Emojis complicate communication

Emojis can communicate warmth, but they also have the potential to confuse. Take the Folded Hands emoji mentioned earlier. A survey by Fast Company found this emoji to be the least understood by respondents. Although its creators intended it to mean “thanks,” many interpreted it as “prayer” or even “clapping.” If the recipient of a message with folded hands thought it meant prayer, they might interpret the simple request as pleading, begging or demeaning. 

The Fast Survey found enormous variance in emoji understanding between generations. Because of these differences, they recommended using emojis sparingly and with a lot of textual context with Gen Xers and baby boomers. If workers don’t consider their audience before using emojis, the symbols can be alienating or misconstrued—making it even harder to communicate digitally.

Emojis can also mean different things in different cultural contexts. Take the Thumbs Up emoji (👍), for example. In the US, it is commonly used to indicate “sounds good” or “got it.” But in countries like Iran, Greece, Russia, Sardinia, and parts of West Africa, it can mean something too rude to spell out in this blog.

Another complaint about emojis is that they can appear too informal or even lazy. Workplace culture, context, and message content can all play into this scenario. Typing “I’m sorry I didn’t have time to get to your email today” can mean much more than the Pensive Face emoji (😔). It shows your coworker that you take the failure (and your relationship with them) seriously.

When to use emojis  

Emojis can potentially warm and strengthen workplace communication, but they may also leave us second-guessing the meaning behind messages. Context is key, as is workplace culture and communication channel. Email may be too formal for emojis in many workplaces, whereas a comment on LinkedIn may be the perfect spot to try out a commonly-used emoji.

Also, as AI integrates deeper into our communication, emojis can give them a human touch. But if you do not like emojis, suddenly filling your communication with them will feel disconcerting to your coworkers. Emoji use must be a personal decision that aligns with your way of speaking and comfort level with the symbols.

Even if you decide not to start using emojis, familiarizing yourself with them is a good idea—they will likely stick around for some time. Here’s a simple chart to get started:

EmojiNameMeaningUse for…Use with caution
😀GrinningJoy, happiness, satisfactionHellos 
😊Smiling with Smiling EyesHappiness and warmthThank you 
🤣Rolling on the Floor LaughingIntense laughterSomething you find very funnyX
🙏Folded HandsThank youThank youX
😂Tears of JoyVery funnye-laugh 
😭Loudly CryingIntense emotionDeep sadness or joyX
🙌Raising HandsCelebrationShow excitement 
👏Clapping HandsBravo, well doneExpress appreciation 
👍Thumbs UpWell doneApprovalX
10 commonly-used emojis and their meanings

Note: For more lists of commonly used emojis and their meanings, check out this article by Make Use Of and this list with helpful user comments by Emoji Meanings.

Emojis hold the potential to bring a human element to our digital conversations, carrying humor and warmth across cultural and language barriers. But they can also confuse our communication or cause offense or hurt. Context, office culture, and familiarity with emojis can help you use them effectively.

Signing off with the Mr. Spock Greeting emoji (🖖): Live long and prosper!    

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