Why emojis don't make me smile...and why I believe that they can actually undermine us at work

Confession: I have never really been a fan of emojis. My dislike for emojis is in inverse proportion to my love and respect for words.

I believe that words have power and, if written well, they shouldn't require a smiley face - to reinforce that a sentiment was positive - or a frowny face  - to communicate that upon reading these words you should feel sad.  Not to be over-dramatic about the whole thing, but I think emojis undermine the power of language and can make us lazy, even docile – “I don't need to think about how the words make me feel, the emoji tells me.”

However, a few months ago a colleague presented the view that emojis are the closest thing we have to a universal language, and I broke out into a severe case of FOMO.  I envisioned being left out of a worldwide conversation of emojis taking place on phone screens around the globe -- so I became committed to overcoming my anti-emoji sentiment. Quickly, I fired off a series of emoji filled What's App messages only to (unintentionally) start a false rumor that a co-worker was getting married. In my defence, who knew people would take the engagement ring emoji so literally?!?

So as you have probably caught on, I don't particularly like emojis and using them doesn't come intuitively to me.  However, I do want to make a serious point about how women use emojis in work communications and how I think it can undermine us.  Full disclosure, I am 100 percent guilty of the following.

 One way in which I believe women (mis)use emojis is to soften bad news - for example, "The press release you sent did not announce the news until the second page and was riddled with typos.  I will need you to work this over the weekend to deliver it Monday morning. Thank you. Smile"

 Presumably if you have sent this email, you have earned the right to do so.  You have crafted, drafted, published and placed your share of stories and are now in a place to guide others to do the same.  If people don't meet your expectations (and let's assume you gave them a great brief) it is your right to demand better.  So, in this instance, you have undermined your hard won authority with a seemingly benign smiley face.

Then there is a slightly different approach - the use of an emoji to offset a communication which the recipient is inevitably going to disagree with.  Like this, “With all due respect, we would like to challenge your proposal that we activate a twitter campaign to support the debut of your new ad. Additionally, we have some serious concerns about the hashtag, consider it potentially offensive, and believe that it has the possibility to attract significant back lash against the brand. Happy to discuss.Smile

After having the confidence to take a strong stance, even when that position will ultimately court disagreement, the emoji dilutes the impact of the communication.  Thanks to the insertion of the emoji, the statement looks strong and the sender appears weak.

A colleague challenged me as to why we do this, and why excessive use of emoji appears to be a primarily female behavior.  To be generous, I would suggest that we use emojis as an attempted expression of empathy – a quality frequently associated with female leadership.  So essentially, we are putting ourselves into the recipient’s inbox, anticipating how they will respond and attempting to soften the blow.  I would suggest that in reality – the use of an emoji is really an example of “empathy light” which isn't effective and in the context of an email is ultimately misplaced. When it comes down to it, there have to be better - and more empowering - ways to express empathy than through emojis, and more meaningful ways to demonstrate humanity without reverting to a happy face.

Of course, I recognize and appreciate that we are moving into a world in which we communicate more visually, and who am I to halt progress?  That said, I remain wary of what most would consider an innocuous visual shorthand and argue that emojis can undermine the power of the written word and can even undermine us as communicators.  So, before you are lured in by their smiley faces, puckered up kissy lips and winking eyes, consider the danger that lurks beneath...

Then again, that's only my opinion Wink



Avra Lorrimer

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search