Despite their increasing use, emojis don’t belong in professional emails, I’m :( to say.
“Should I add a smiley face to this email or not?”
I face this dilemma regularly when writing emails, texts, Facebook messages and the like. The confusion is particularly acute when it relates to professional emails. I haven’t pondered over the use of a colon and bracket this much since high school English.
Personally, I feel uncomfortable with using emojis in any business correspondence. My British education is partly to blame for that, but I’m not alone. Nearly 4 in 10 senior managers (39 percent) said in a 2016 OfficeTeam survey that it’s unprofessional to include emojis or emoticons in work communications. When office workers were asked how they feel about these symbols, 59 percent said they never or only sparingly use them.
But since moving to America five years ago, I’ve found them to be ubiquitous – particularly in my correspondence with other professional women.
When I solicited feedback on this from professional women in Seattle, I heard two divergent accounts on their experiences. Some felt a need to tone down natural tendencies to be effusive. One reported: “For a long time, I felt like I needed to be taken more seriously because I was a young woman, so I really shied away from emojis in work emails. It wasn’t until I saw my male boss use them every once and awhile that I started again, but still infrequently. In general, I’ve tried to write my emails more straightforward and direct.”
Several echoed this sentiment, adding that exclamation points and words like “love” within emails often also result in women being perceived as less professional.
But some women reported being advised by managers and peers to be more friendly in emails. Said one: “After I got this feedback from a manager, I started wondering: How can one come off as unlikeable in emails? I decided to add a minimum of two smiley faces in every email going forward.”
What is the best way to manage this dilemma? How can women appear likable yet professional? Here are my thoughts on how to proceed, especially if like me, inserting emojis into work correspondence feels decidedly foreign:
Be consistent. I recommend having one rule on emojis in work emails and applying it consistently. For me, that has meant always staying away from smiley faces in professional communication. It may seem overly severe, but this helps manage any confusion of whether to include it or not.
If this seems too prescriptive, be consistent on your approach when communicating with different stakeholders. One woman suggested: “As a typical rule of thumb, I try to model my emails aligned with the person I’m corresponding with — if someone is really short over email, or really exclamatory, I mirror it.”
Use sparingly. If you decide to use a smiling emoji, limit the number. Times when smileys are appropriate include when you’re making a joke, or when a message may be read wrongly and cause offense. But remember that an entirely negative email with a smiley face tacked on the end for good measure fools no one.
When in doubt, take it out. If you’re unsure whether your boss would appreciate your smiling emoji, delete it. Then there are times it’s a bad idea to include them at all — in job-search emails, serious conversations such as salary negotiations or performance reviews or emails that may be disseminated widely. Also remember that any email can be forwarded at any time.
Know that women are judged differently. There’s growing research to show women walk a tightrope between being liked and respected at work. This means that whether women use smiley faces in their professional communication or not, there’s no real “right” way to proceed. It is incumbent upon organizations to understand how these biases play out within a woman’s career trajectory.
If you’re a female manager or a woman who has influence on another woman’s career growth, don’t be quick to write off a female employee based on their use of emojis. If you hear someone complaining about a peer’s overuse, or lack of use, of smileys in emails, bring up the implicit biases that may cause them to incorrectly judge the employee’s performance.