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Why emojis aren’t always good for business

Emojis are everywhere lately – in life, at work and even in the cinema – but when it comes to global business can there be too much of a good thing?
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Emojis are clearly popular and a great way to gain someone’s attention, especially when it comes to getting a few moments of focus from a consumer.

But do they really measure up to the very high standard of being “the universal language” for global communication?

The short answer to this question is “not really”. 

So, before using emojis in business communication take a moment to assess how it might be received.

It is tempting to “lean on” emojis when trying to connect with people. They seem to spare us the effort of finding those perfect words to express ourselves. However, as with most things in life and in business, it is not that black and white.

The reality is that people interpret many emojis very differently. (Try it: sit with some friends one evening over a drink or dinner and take a poll about what the most common emojis exactly mean: Is that smiley flashing its teeth grinning or grimacing – are you sure??)

Now layer on top of that how different cultures interpret facial expressions and gestures in wide variety of ways. When going abroad we have all checked guidebooks or online resources to read those “dos and don’ts” to ensure we are not offending anyone with our daily interactions.

And often we are surprised that a certain “innocent” gesture or behaviour can mean something very different and even be offensive in another culture.

For example, a smile or laughter can actually indicate embarrassment or discomfort in many Asian cultures. And in cultures with many specific hand gestures like Italy an “okay” hand gesture becomes very rude and means something completely different.

Emojis are not any different. They represent real people using real gestures and expressions. 

To make matters more complex, when using emojis across cultures you cannot see your foreign colleague’s immediate reaction – and as a result you do not have the opportunity to quickly adjust or apologise and minimise the damage of your faux pas.

The truth is if your client or colleague in another culture doesn’t let you know, then you will probably be oblivious that they have been offended. Your “face with tears of joy” which seems so clear to you might be interpreted by a foreign colleague as representing how joyful you feel; but alas, they might also think that you are laughing so hard at something very funny or even you are laughing very hard at them!

Also, just as you should not assume your friendly informal message will be seen in a positive light so you should not assume that friendly emojis will be received positively. This can be due to a culture’s rules around formality and even hierarchy.

For example, in India, and Columbia it is important to adjust formality and tone based on the person’s role and how that compares to your role. In those cases the use of a “Ms” or “Mr” will get you much further than emojis.

Lastly, emojis are a great way to lighten the mood with sarcasm or humour, that’s true. But we need to remember that many cultures find sarcasm disrespectful or don’t understand it.

The rules about when humour is appropriate (and what kind: sarcastic, self-effacing, silly etc) are very culture-specific. It is something that business people traveling abroad learn quickly when, during a meeting or presentation, their “guaranteed to get a laugh” comment just gets blank stares or even frowns. Emojis are no exception.

So, what is the bottom line when it comes to using emojis in the workplace? Well, we might love them in private communication or advertisements – but in business to business communications it is wise to use them very carefully.

Alyssa Bantle is global curriculum manager at Crown World Mobility

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