Emojis: Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Feb. 26, 2021


In these crazy times, I am fortunate to enjoy the camaraderie of a close-knit group of running friends.

Frances, Mary, Elaine and I met through running – and we continue to share that passion. But as any runner knows, the bonds you forge while pounding the pavement over many, many miles, through wind and hail and sleet and snow, run much deeper, so to speak.

Unlike the kilometres I’ve logged, the friendship and support these amazing women have given me over the years is too vast to measure. So, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that when we can’t get together to run in person (which is, alas, more often than not these days), we still connect daily on What’s App. It's our Check-In Ritual. 

Beyond the obvious desire to stay in touch, our Check-In Ritual is a way to motivate each other and be accountable for doing a meagre set of three exercises – some daily variation of push-ups, sit-ups and squats.

The ritual started with a simple bit of text: “Done”. Not too inspiring, I’ll admit, but it did the job. When we tired of text, we started using the checkmark symbol. So “Done” became ✔ ✔ ✔.

Then one day, someone – likely Elaine because she’s often out front on these sorts of things – introduced some pictures: 🌞 🏃 ☕

Whoa! That was taking things to a whole new level. That wasn’t just a check-in. That was a succinct story about Elaine’s day!

And so, both the purpose and the format of our daily check-in messages evolved once more. Now, we all spend our time searching for the perfect three little images to convey what we’ve done that day or what we’re planning to do or how we’re reacting to a world event.

For example:

  • From Elaine, who, in addition to running, spends a huge amount of time hiking the Bruce Trail with her partner, we’ll often get something like this:  🥣 ☕ 🥾
  • From Frances, a very active and involved grandmother (among many other things, I hasten to add!), we get lots of these: 🏃 ☕ 👶
  • And from Mary and me, the two working stiffs in the group, there is this:  💻 ‍ 💻 💻 Sigh. What can I say.

We’re certainly not the first people to use emojis, and while these little pictures are perfectly at home in our informal, friend-to-friend messages, what about emojis in the business context?

Before I offer you my humble opinion on that question, let’s back up a bit and consider how emojis developed in the first place.

In her 2019 book, Because Internet: Understanding how language is changing, linguist Gretchen McCulloch tells us that the idea of using a symbol to help interpret text was first proposed by Scott Falhman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Apparently, one day way back in September 1982, a bunch of fun-loving academics were joking around on Carnegie Mellon's computer message board when it all went a bit too far, miscommunication ensued, and some people mistakenly thought they had a crisis on their hands. (You know how it goes: it’s all fun until someone loses an eye.) In response, the message board users brainstormed ways to indicate that a post was nothing but a harmless joke. Falhman’s suggestion – a simplified smiling face, turned on its side :- ) stuck.

As McCulloch explains, the sideways smiley face is actually an “emoticon” – a combination of “emotion” and “icon.” It would take a decade and a half before emojis, as we know them today, finally emerged. And although emoji sounds like emoticon, the word actually comes from the Japanese – “e” (picture) + “moji” (character). No surprise there – emojis originated on Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s.

At first the rest of the world thought of emojis as a purely Japanese phenomenon and one that might not last at that. But over time, emojis became too big to ignore.

In 2010, The Unicode Consortium, the non-profit organization that overseas text encoding and whose members include all the tech giants like Adobe, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Netflix and Facebook, was persuaded to formally add emojis to The Unicode Standard. In case you’re wondering, The Unicode Standard is “a character coding system designed to support the worldwide interchange, processing, and display of the written texts of the diverse languages and technical disciplines of the modern world.” (A bit of a mouthful, that, but I'm sure you get the idea.)

You can peruse the full emoji list, currently on Version 13.1. The process of adding new emojis to the list is ongoing. Anyone can propose a new emoji (see full instructions, should you be so inclined); the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee will assess your proposal and make a recommendation about whether your emoji should be added and why. Every year, Subcommittee adds about 100 new emojis, and I gather it’s a pretty big deal to have yours accepted.

To say that emojis have "caught on" is a laughable understatement. Apart from their ubiquity in our daily text messages, emojis have also spawned #EmojiReads, featuring renditions of classic stories told in emoji, and Emojipedia, the world’s leading emoji resource, which also hosts the World Emoji Awards and World Emoji Day (July 17). And here’s another fun fact: In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries named the “face with tears of joy” emoji Word of the Year. Take that, language purists! 😂

But this still begs the question: Is it ever appropriate to use emojis in business communications? For me, the answer comes back to first principles: Know your reader and know your purpose.

Who is the intended audience for your communication and why are you writing? Is this an internal email? Do you know the person well? And do you have the kind of workplace culture that encourages a bit of fun? If you can answer yes to one or more of those questions, then it’s probably fine to go ahead and insert a smiley face to help clarify your intentions.

It also depends on the type of communication you are crafting. The odd (as in infrequent, not weird) emoji can be effective in a social media post, an advertisement or a marketing campaign. But again, the level of acceptance will depend on the sector in which you operate and the demographic you’re targeting. If you’re in the business of selling sneakers to hipster kids, emoji away. If you’re pushing brogues to bankers, I’d think twice.

Moreover, in the realm of professional services and consulting, I believe emojis should be used sparingly, if at all. For example, if you’re an architect advising the CEO of a university that you’re over budget on her new building, inserting a smiley face emoji will not soften the blow – if will only make you look silly and unprofessional. The CEO would be within her rights to send back an emoji that says "You're fired!" 

This is not to say you should never use emojis in client communications. But before you do, stop and ask yourself: Am I confident that including a smiley face in this email to Theodore will not in any way damage our relationship or my reputation? And I don’t care how well you know Theodore – call me an old fuddy-duddy, if you like – but never, I repeat never, send that smiling pile of poo. 💩

Remember this:
When deciding whether or not to include emojis in your communications, start with the fundamental question: Who is my intended reader and what is my purpose in writing?

Effective Communication | Writing Tips & Tools | Etymology