Science Says You Should Probably Stop Using Smiley Emojis In Your Work Emails

by Julia Guerra
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Emojis have evolved from cute cartoons you might pop into a text message every now and then to full-on conversational tools. But it's one thing to send a stream of smileys to your best friend, and quite another to sprinkle a few into an email addressed to your boss. Recent studies show using emojis in work emails could undermine your professionalism, so even though you may be friendly with the higher-ups off the clock, it might be best to keep things copacetic in the workplace.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University, University of Haifa, and Amsterdam University addressed how co-workers interpret emojis in a series of experiments. The first required participants to read work-related emails and evaluate the competence and warmth of the sender. Surprisingly, messages that included the occasional smiley emoji were received negatively. The second experiment compared cartoon emojis in work emails with actual photographs of smiling and neutral faces. While a smiling face was naturally perceived as warm and friendly, those who sent a work-related email that included a smiley face emoji were assumed to be less competent.

Dr. Ella Glikson, a post-doctorate fellow at the BGU Department of Management, Guilford Glazer Faculty of Business and Management, explained,

People tend to assume that a smiley is a virtual smile, but the findings of this study show that in the case of the workplace, at least as far as initial 'encounters' are concerned, this is incorrect. For now, at least, a smiley can only replace a smile when you already know the other person. In initial interactions, it is better to avoid using smileys, regardless of age or gender.

Whether or not you should use emojis at work seems to depend on both your industry and the level of friendliness you have with your co-workers and boss.

Obviously, there is a fine line between personal matters and professionalism in the workplace, but if you become close with your co-workers or boss, that line naturally becomes a little blurry. While it certainly makes sense to avoid using emojis in work-related matters initially (i.e. when starting a new job, addressing higher-ups, etc.), I personally don't think sending a smiley emoji to someone you've become friendlier with is all that inappropriate.

Creative industries, such as editorial, tend to be a lot more laid-back than, say, corporate finance. If you're practically BFFs with your boss, you might feel comfortable sending over a smiley to smooth over an awkward phrase in an email. But if you're working with a potential client who you've never met before, I'd advise you hold back on the cartoon initiative. It's all about accurately reading a situation, and knowing when to send an emoji.

But this could very well be a millennial imprint on a transforming work environment.

According to a Pew Research Center analysis performed in May 2015, millennials are the biggest generation in the U.S. workforce now, which means times and traditions are changing. While sending emails to supervisors and potential clients used to be as formal as a handwritten letter, to millennials, it's just another form of communication and, oftentimes, these messages are super casual and conversational.

Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of the classic email etiquette book Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better told The Atlantic,

Whether you're using the exclamation mark, which we called the 'ur emoticon', or emoticons, or emoji, they all serve the same incredibly valuable purpose which is they take this very dull, flat, affectless form of communication and they make it cheerful, friendly, they bring a smile … They kick it up a notch.

I'm a product of the millennial generation, meaning I grew up socializing through AOL instant messenger and smartphones. Unlimited communication has its advantages, but digitized conversations can be interpreted as emotionless. Emojis bring life to an otherwise lifeless conversation.

So if you're thinking about using an emoji, pause before you press send.

Since start-up companies and offices are usually run by a younger generation, they may be more open to using emojis in work emails than, say, a big corporate company. Overall, the decision about whether you send a smiley should largely depend on where you work, who you work for, and how well you know the person you're writing to.

Just don't go overboard -- words will always be able to better communicate what you want to say than a smiley face, right?