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Emojis are changing how we relate at work

A picture shows emoji characters on the screens of two mobile phones in Paris on August 6, 2015.
A picture shows emoji characters on the screens of two mobile phones in Paris on August 6, 2015.

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Business emails are traditionally reserved for professional correspondence between clients and colleagues. But as we become more and more immersed in technology, how have emojis and emoticons changed the way we communicate in the workplace?

Emojis and emoticons are used almost religiously in text messages — especially in lieu of punctuation — to help convey an emotion, and workplace emoticon users are joining the fun.

Interpretation can be important, but does using emojis and emoticons prioritize emotions over the substance of an email? Is it unprofessional to send an emoji or emoticon in work-related emails? Does it depend on the recipient? Have you used them with your colleagues, or do you abide by traditional formalities?    

Interview Highlights 

With decreasing our reliance on voicemails and telephone calls, how much more difficult does it make it to communicate subtleties in messages?

Curzan: We are often communicating fast — particularly when we’re texting. It’s fast and short and we’re missing all the context that you have in a spoken conversation. You can’t hear tone of voice, you can’t see facial expression, you can’t tell if the person is laughing or leaning in or leaning back — all the signals we rely on to figure out what the message is behind the words. When we’re texting, part of what emoticons can do is try to help signal some of that: I’m happy, I’m laughing, I’m kidding, it’s not a big deal, etcetera.

When you’re speaking to someone face-to-face you can often see if your message has gone awry. You can see that someone got confused or someone looks like they’re about to get annoying — and you can correct it. But when you’re texting, you don’t get to see if something has gone awry until you get the response and learn if you’ve somehow annoyed someone and didn’t mean to.

I think we’re also seeing a slipperiness between texting and emailing. People are often doing both at work and they may also be on something like Slack, where teams are working together online, so we're constantly trying to figure out, is it OK to put a smiley face in an email, if it’s OK in a text?

Aunnie in Los Feliz: We’re constantly having two different conversations, so the fact that we have the ability to add an emoji to be concise with how we feel is perfect. It’s too easy for people to misinterpret what we’re saying. 

Curzan: I think you're seeing people be incredibly smart and savvy about their audience. They're saying, "With the people I know well or with the people I work with closely, emoticons and punctuation can help show what we mean in a concise way. But when I’m sending out stuff to the public, when I’m in a more formal context, I’m careful, more formal, which means not using emoticons."

We do this all the time — it’s the difference between using “Dear” and “Hey.”

Michael in Laguna Hills: Being autistic, I can have communication issues. So sometimes I add parentheticals to clarify my meaning. I haven’t jumped on the emoji train just yet; I definitely use stickers, but it definitely depends on who I’m talking to and how I’m talking to them — is it professional or casual, is it in Instant Messenger or in an email.


Anne Curzan, Professor of English Language and Literature, Linguistics, & Education, University of Michigan

This story has been updated.