The Why and How of Emoji


Yes, emoji are everywhere. A friend sends a happy hour reminder with a glass of wine emoji. Another friend wants to meet you for a spin class and sends the muscle one. A birthday wish with a cake. But then, wait a second! Did your assistant just send you a big thumbs up?

Emoji are inescapable and have jumped from our phones to our business communication.

And while they can add warmth to an email that might otherwise seem lackluster to your recipient, mastering the art of emoji can be a challenge to executives who don’t believe they have any place in business correspondence.

This week I’ve found several articles that discuss why emoji aren’t going anywhere and how and why to use emoji in business settings.

Why Emoji Are Suddenly Acceptable at Work – The Atlantic: [Full disclosure; I was interviewed for this article.] “Why are people using emoticons or emoji in the workplace? The answer is that they’re useful. Lauren Collister, a socio-linguist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies the interaction of language and society, argues that whether it be emoticons or emoji [Quick primer on the difference between emoji and emoticons: Emoticons use text to represent a facial expression, like so: :). Emoji are actual pictures, like so: ✈.]—both are doing their part in revolutionizing language. In emails, Collister says that emoticons and emoji act as discourse particles—a word that has no semantic meaning but adds intention to a statement. ‘People tend to use emoticons when there’s some kind of what linguists call a face threat—something kind of awkward or potentially offensive, or somebody could take something the wrong way,’ explains Collister. ‘So people will use emoticons or emoji in these instances to just add that little bit of extra inflection or discourse particle information at work too because it’s a useful way to communicate.’”

Report: 92% of Online Consumers Use Emoji (Infographic) – SocialTimes: “Emoji are used by 92 percent of the online population, with gender being a larger factor in emoji use than age. To be specific, 78 percent of women are frequent users of emoji (using them several times per week), while only 60 percent of men use emoji as frequently. The report found the biggest reasons consumers use emoji are to help them more accurately express what they’re thinking, and to make it easier for other people to understand them.”

Emoji Are Here to Stay So Start Figuring Out How They Fit in Your Communications Holtz Communications + Technology: “Mitchell Stephens, who teaches at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, says using emoji ‘gives people something that has been missing in writing for the past five and a half thousand years.’ Early writing—hieroglyphics—were all about images. Chinese characters convey more than just the vowels or consonants employed in sounding out a words. Rather, using images in written communications does ‘what the tone of voice did on the telephone and what gestures, tones, and facial expressions did in interpersonal communication.’… Emoji are on their way to replacing a lot of slang. The tears of joy face…is being used in lieu of LOL, LMFAO, and LMAO. The thumbs-up emoji is a stand-in for ‘that’s great,’ ‘way to go,’ ‘good job,’ and ‘keep it up.’”

Brands Woo Millennials With a Wink, an Emoji or Whatever It Takes – The New York Times: “’Brands need to re-engineer how they reach millennials,’ he [Matt Britton, chief executive of MRY, a digital marketing agency that focuses on millennials] said. ‘Brands need to figure out how to add value to a consumer’s life. And if they do that, consumers will seek brands out.’ Some brands, for instance, are trying to figure out how to use emojis, a pictograph-based language of happy faces and hearts that is important to millennials. (According to the Cassandra Report, which is published by the agency Deep Focus, four in 10 millennials said they would rather communicate with pictures than with words.) In December, General Electric introduced an ad campaign on Snapchat in which users could send emojis to GE and the company would send back a message with a science experiment. And Domino’s Pizza customers can order pizza by texting or tweeting a pizza emoji.”

The Dos and Don’ts of Work Email, from Emojis to Typos – Harvard Business Review: What is the best way to convey emotions via email? Emoticons? Word choice? Exclamation points? There is no single correct answer; the proper cues will vary based on the context. For instance, you likely wouldn’t want to send a smiley face emoticon to a client organization that is known for having a very formal culture. Alternatively, you wouldn’t want to send an overly formal email to a very close colleague. One strategy that has been found to be very effective across settings is to engage in behavioral mimicry (i.e., using emoticons, word-choice, and slang/jargon in a similar manner to the person with whom you are communicating). In a set of studies of American, Dutch, and Thai negotiators, using behavioral mimicry in the early stages of text-based chat negotiations, increased individual outcomes by 30%. This process of mimicry increases trust because people tend to feel an affinity toward those who act similarly to them.”

How to Use Emoticons in Business Communication – Userlike: “You should already have at least one buyer persona in place and you should know the general demographic of your customer. This can be used to determine whether your customer base is open to the use of emoticons. For example, if your customers are predominantly made up of millennials, then you’re pretty safe to use emoticons in almost every situation and through any medium….On the other hand, if your customer base is made up of people that have passed retirement age, then it’s likely that they won’t be well versed in using emoticons and as such, may have no idea what it means if it appears in textual format (rather than graphical)…There are of course exceptions to every rule, but knowing your customers well will dictate how much you use emoticons in your communications. It’s important to remember though that their use might even offend some people who may think that they’re not being taken seriously.”

Are you pro-emoji? I’d love to hear how you use (or don’t use) emoji at work — please share in the comments!

Lindsey Pollak is the leading voice on millennials in the workplace, trusted by global companies, universities, and the world’s top media outlets — and, most importantly, by millennials themselves. A New York Times bestselling author, Lindsey began her career as a dorm RA in college and has been mentoring millennials — and explaining them to other generations — ever since. Her keynote speeches have audiences so engaged that, in the words of one attendee, “I didn’t check my phone once!” Contact Lindsey to discuss a speaking engagement for your organization.

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Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


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