To emoji or not to emoji?

You should know, to start with, that I’m a hard-ass about most things when it comes to business writing:

• The phrase “I trust this email finds you well” (I hate it)
• The incorrect use of the verb “revert” (this makes me itch)
• Two spaces after a full stop (which should’ve vanished when women got the vote)

But, in a development that surprises many people, I’m no hard-ass when it comes to emojis. They’re useful. And what’s more, I believe that using them effectively actually makes you a better communicator.

Here’s another thing: In two separate studies conducted by researchers at The Kinsey Institute in 2019, it was found that people who use more emoticons in their messaging have more sex (Lehmiller, in Psychology Today, 2019). Seriously.

But, back to the writing…

The origins

Emojis emerged from symbols used in Japanese comics, with the general goal of providing a reaction when emailing, texting or messaging someone who can’t see your body language (Japan Times, 2016). In their earliest iteration as emoticons, they took the form of a colon and a comma to indicate a smiley face. I’m afraid I still use this but then I’m a geriatric millennial and I’m sensitive to plain text. After smartphones came along, the world of emojis began to expand beyond the smiley face. We have now emojis for “wow”, “meh”, “laughing so hard I’m crying”, a wide range of animals, plants, and symbols… and even three types of genie, mermaid an fairy.

Back in 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary gave language purists (excluding me but only because I didn’t know about it) a good reason to roll our collective eyes when it declared “emoji” — specifically the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji — as its word of the year. Huh?

And, in the same year, then-US president Barack Obama thanked then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, during a state dinner, for Japan’s having bequeathed its ideograms to the world.

[In which parallel universe are we living? Oh right… The one where Donald Trump is seeking a second presidential term. Never mind. Back to emojis.]

The strategy

Now, despite what the vast majority of critics say about emojis’ negative effect on language, my position is that they can infuse your online communication with nuance, subtlety, and humanity — provided that you use them strategically. So, let’s take a look at strategy.

If you’re going to have a plan for using emojis in your business writing, I suggest that you start with a checklist composed of four Ws and an H, as follows:

Who: What’s the context of your relationship with the recipient? How well do you know them? Is there a level of comfort, chattiness or familiarity?
What: What’s the content; ie what’s the writing about? Is it an administrative matter? Or, is it something technical, explanatory, confrontational, emotive, apologetic, etc?
Where: Are there norms inherent in the platform, channel or medium? Consider a proposal as opposed to an instant message.
Why: Do you have a clear goal for the emoji/s in this situation; ie to inject humour, humanity, honesty…?
• How: What’s the most appropriate tone for this specific message, in light of the above considerations, and are emojis likely to fit into that tone?

The why

At this point, it’s useful to unpack the why a bit more; in other words, what practical value do emojis add to your writing and how can they help you to meet your messaging goals?

#1. Emojis can inject humanity into digital conversation, providing an “external vocabulary” (Cohn, in Japan Times, 2016) that compensates for absent gesture and intonation.
#2. Emojis can break down barriers in communication, and bring conversations to a warmer, more personal level — standing in for the facial cues you’d usually use in person.
#3. Emojis, deemed to be honest expressions, can help you to build connections with your clients, by adding authentic emotional nuance to specific words or phrases.
#4. In internal communications, emoji use is encouraged to build rapport among employees.
#5. Emojis can indicate tone, humour, irony, or wit that might otherwise be misconstrued.
#6. Emojis can serve as a universal language, regardless of an individual’s native speech.

All good news. All factors that can make you a better communicator. But there are risks.

The risks


The 2019 Emoji Trend Report shows that 61% of employees uses emojis at work, because they “help users to better communicate their thoughts and feelings, and connect to people they routinely message”. But, while most employees admit to using emojis, over 50% of executives claimed in 2016 (says Robert Half) that it’s “never appropriate” to use them at work.

Be aware that, because emojis are a newer form of communication, they can make you seem less competent to those who are older (those I call “the verkramptes”).


Emojis don’t always function as intended, because there’s no universal agreement on what each represents. Individuals bring their own personal experience to emoji interpretation — my cherries may not mean the same thing as your cherries — so there’s room for confusion.


Is a smiley always a suitable replacement for a real smile? Depends. Follow the recipient’s example. “Mirroring is a proven strategy for in-person communication, and I believe the same is true online,” says PR manager Hillary Hafke in Robinson (2019). So, don’t default to emoticons in your first email. Wait and see what the other person does. It’s safer.

Bottom line?

If your boss offers to buy the team lunch, and then messages you to ask what you’d like, avoid the eggplant, the peach and the cookie. They may not mean what you think 😉

Tiffany Markman gives good advice on words and writing. Want some?

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