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Emojis at work - what's helpful vs confusing, when should you and should you not use them?

Edited

Since emoji reactions have come into practice, I've seen emojis used for humor, for solidarity, to succinctly gather votes for a decision, and for short-handing how people feel about posts.

But, just as the number of emojis has expanded, so has the meaning of emojis.

---

Curious: how do y'all use emojis, specifically at work?

  1. What are your most common emojis used? Or do you most commonly see? And for what purpose?
  2. What emojis to you try and avoid? Or dislike seeing when used? Why?
  3. Are there any emojis the have changed in meaning over time?

13 comments

Frankly, their proliferation has made them mostly useless in my opinion.  They've become another type of jargon and yet another way to mis-communicate.

The oldest and most used ones are useful as contractions.  It's great to have something that says "I read this", "I like this", "I found this funny", "Thank you" and other clear short phrases with a single character.  But most people are never going to learn and agree on the precise meanings of 3300+ emojis (let alone all the non-unicode ones)

  1. I use maybe 15 of them, all the very clear ones (although I tend to use "smiling cat" instead of "smile".  I like my cat.  I'll start mixing it up with a smiling dog when we get a dog).  As for what I see at work, I'm afraid it's all pointless noise.  It tells me nothing more than someone skimmed a post and wanted to say they've noticed it.
  2. Animated ones, especially ones done at speed.  They're distracting and ultimately annoying, trying to draw the eye away from what you actually want to read
  3. Not changed, just expanded their definition, so they've become less clear and hence less useful
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"Frankly, their proliferation has made them mostly useless in my opinion."

When folks use emojis in large volume within messages, I'm actually really distracted. I subscribe to the "less is more" concept here.

I'll start mixing it up with a smiling dog when we get a dog).

In attempt to use an emoji as a reaction to this^ appropriately: ๐Ÿ˜‚. (PS - I have no pets).

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Sloan N_ B_ Community Leader Sep 08, 2022

Really good points @Nic Brough _Adaptavist_ !

While some emoji are on the point, some can be up for interpretation. I guess the same principles apply as with communication only with words.

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Almost all of them are "up for interpretation", unlike most words in most languages.

I stay away from the ones that I do not thoroughly understand, so I dd not get caught out in this story, but...

The other day, my partner used one in a conversation with our nieces and got absolutely slated by all three of them.  But it turned out they didn't agree on the meaning either.  Five people, four totally different understandings of the same symbol (and me, who admitted to being clueless before anyone asked).

A tiny handful of emojis are very very very useful.  Another 30 or so are clear and hence mildly useful.  The rest are open to interpretation, which makes them useless for communication.  Please stop.

Like โ€ข Sloan N_ B_ likes this

Somehow, every year, I rely more on emojis in all my communication. I never used to use them and throughout the last 5 years, I've grown to use them more and more, though I can't pinpoint why. Perhaps it's more important to me to convey connection digitally as covid makes IRL connection more sparse.

I also know that I use very millennial emojis (my laughing-crying emotional support emoji is critical and I won't stop!) and I think they show my age (which isn't a lot but still enough to feel old on the internet!) I thought about evolving with the times, but ultimately felt it was better to stick with my tried and true rather than try and sound like a Gen-Zer.   

I recently read this HBR article about emojis to connect at work, and it really did make me feel better about using emojis at work. I live about a thousand miles from the closest Atlassian office, so Slack is my primary form of communicating with coworkers and Atlassian's vast emoji library makes it easy to convey jokes and tone. Ultimately, I thought about the communication I prefer to get. All of these mean "I'm good with what you're saying"

ok

ok.

ok!

ok =)

And that doesn't even get into the "k" "OK" variants! But I'd be much happier to get a slack containing the bottom two than the top two, so that's what I put out as well. 

I generally want my tone at work to be "friendly and helpful" so I leverage emojis to convey that. 

If you're interested in linguistic studies (including emojis!) I highly recommend reading the works of Gretchen McCulloch. Her book Because Internet is one of my favorite nonfiction reads and she generally has great insight into how and why people use emojis differently. 

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Adding Gretchen McCulloch's book to my Libby app's hold queue. Thank you for the rec, @Mel Policicchio!

And re: the HBR article you mentioned, I really resonated with the first item on their listicle: "Get deeper insight on how your team is feeling." I'm finding that emojis (as reactions to posts) are a more accessible way for people to share something about how they feel. The emojis they use can actually be quite telling. Unless, a bit to @Nic Brough _Adaptavist_ 's point, the emojis are a checkbox or a performative way to show engagement. So I guess honest usage of clear emojis is a good way to gather vibes on how folks are feeling.

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Agreed! I think overuse of emojis is like overuse of saying "I'm fine!" There's a point where you say it one too many times and people know you are actually not fine.

What's interesting is that varies from person to person and we probably unconsciously know it--just as we unconsciously know when a coworker is overusing emojis to compensate for something else. 

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Most common emojis for my teams:

  • ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘Ž - It's a really quick way to gut check an idea. Someone throws a question out and folks respond with their thumbs. Though, it's harder to get the thumbs down as consistently, as folks who dislike an idea tend to communicate that sentiment via threaded comments.
  • ๐Ÿ™ - it's versatile! A common representation of: appreciation, relief, hope, and solidarity.
  • โœ‹ - This can be a person raising their hand, a custom emoji of an actual hand wave, etc. But generally, we like to share an opportunity and then get headcounts for participation through emoji reactions.

  • ๐Ÿ‘€ - We use this whenever someone asks for the team to look at or feedback on work. It signals that folks will take a look but not necessarily that second.

  • ๐Ÿ‘‹ - when new people join group chats, new members join teams, or someone gets called out via a tag, many folks use this to signal: Hello! Welcome! I'm here!

  • Literal translation: if there isn't a lot to say, but folks want to provide acknowledgement of a comment, I've seen team members react with an emoji that translates the subject of the message. So if someone is saying they are commuting, someone might react with ๐Ÿš†. Or if someone says they're about to go on kid-watching duty, someone might respond withโŒš(as a homonym). 

Less frequent emojis:

  • ๐Ÿคฎ - basically, I avoid using any face that makes me feel sick in real life. It was hard to even include this one. Faces where they're bleeding through their eyes, appear to be in violent pain, etc. 
  • ๐Ÿ™‚ - it's a personal thing, but this is such a neutral expression I try and use really smiling faces or custom emojis that express joy (dancing, drumming, etc) when I'm excited or an emoji that means "yes" if I'm trying to give affirmation.
  • Anything that I don't understand on first glance, I don't use. Emojis can be confusing, so as a tool for direct communication, I try not to use emojis that have too many meanings.

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I'm glad you mentioned how your team uses ๐Ÿ‘€ because it took a long time for me to realize folks were using ๐Ÿ‘€  to say "I see it and will take a look," as I've been so used to the internet use of ๐Ÿ‘€  to mean "keeping an eye on this shady situation" 

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

Hahaha well that's just how the teams I work on use it. So I can't speak for everyone, but it's common enough that folks don't have to ask what it means even if they're new.

Like โ€ข Mel Policicchio likes this

As an organization, we have a couple hundred in Slack that we use (internally) all the time. Many are custom emoji that have our colleagues' faces on them (like :evil_gabe: which is used to mean that you have angered the DevOps team) or a glyph of a lone f-key from an old-school keyboard. (I'll let you draw your own conclusions on the meaning of that one) 

Our Jira instance and Client-facing Slack channels are much more tame, and see similar usage as the ones already listed, with a couple notable exceptions - we use :ty: and :yw: A LOT. These mostly get used as responses to comments when there's no reason to spend more words. As far as I know, these are meant to communicate that the comment has been read, received, and generally accepted.

We also use ๐Ÿ”ฅ to let our teammates know we think something they've done is particularly excellent.


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Ooooh, great reminder, @Anne Saunders!

The glyphs of solo letters, the variations of "fire" as emojis--I actually appreciate a dumpster of reaction diversity to signal excitement, praise, strong emotion on posts. Admittedly, I don't usually look for behind the emojis when there's a lot of them, especially when the whole staff weighs in with different emojis, but it's so nice to feel when you get that much reaction.

Like โ€ข Anne Saunders likes this

๐Ÿ’ฏโ—๏ธ๐Ÿ˜

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Their use in the work environment will always depend on the person I'm emailing/chatting to, their age, culture, and context. I only use basic reactions because they might misinterpret it and make the conversation go sideways.

These are the emojis:

๐Ÿ˜‚โคโœ”๐Ÿ”ฅ๐Ÿค“๐Ÿ˜ญ plus most of the hand and sign emojis (๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ’ช๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘ˆ๐Ÿป๐Ÿ‘†๐Ÿผ๐Ÿ‘‰๐Ÿปโฌ‡โžกโ†˜โ†™), which are self-explanatory.

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I forgot about the directional emojis! Great use case to emphasize parts of messages and use something other than font styles.

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I often use emojis in my personal life, and you cannot leave directional emojis aside. And don't get me started with Whatsapp stickers or gifs @Christine P_ Dela Rosa

And I can't ignore the comment from @Nic Brough _Adaptavist_ about the "๐Ÿฅ” ๐Ÿ“ฆ," a potato in a box is probably illustrating a cat in a box (imaging you're referring to the previous example of the cat,) which is Internet slang about pets translated to emojis.
Endpoint, I feel your frustration. People shouldn't use those expressions in a professional conversation; lacking contextuality might lead to misinterpretation or create mixed feelings.

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Andy Gladstone Community Leader Sep 05, 2022

I don't use emojis with any intentionality, and I certainly limit where I use them. I'm in the same boat as @Nic Brough _Adaptavist_ here that the proliferation of emojis has both angered me and created ambivalence towards them. 

Where do I use emojis? Internal company Slack messages and in personal WhatsApp messages. The usage in each varies since the context differs. 

Where I absolutely HATE seeing emojis are in company/professional emails and overuse in LinkedIn posts. ๐Ÿ˜  If emojis were meant to convey emotions, then they should never be used as window dressing and distraction from the words that are supposed to emit those emotions.

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Totally. If the purpose of emojis is to enhance the message, too much (and in some cases any amount of emojis) can defeat the purpose by muddying the directness.

I guess it's a matter of where that line is for different groups and being aware of that line while communicating.

Like โ€ข Andy Gladstone likes this

I didn't really answer the "when I should use them" part of the question.

There is a good answer to that - use them when they can convey a message that everyone who might read it will have a similar understanding of the message and to save you writing an explanation.

For example.  "Here is a picture of my cat being cute".  You could write "Your cat is adorable in this picture, I would like to see more of this sort of thing".  Or :-) - saves typing, easier to read, says all you need to.

But don't ask us to understand and agree on the other 3,300 emojis that are not clear.   What the heck does ๐Ÿฅ” mean as opposed to ๐Ÿ“ฆ ?

When you should use emojis is contextual.  I use them in slack to tell people I've read their message and I suggest that I'm going to look more, or not.  I use them less in email and in conversational issues and documentation to indicate a mood about what I'm saying.

But I only use them when I know the audience is going to understand it.  Which means "very infrequently", because most of the world does not.

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This is accurate for me, too. There are one or two client contacts with whom I might use a smiley emoji in email, but that's it. 

Our internal Slack channels have evolved their own common usages and understandings of the intentions behind emoji, but we're a small shop and pretty close-knit - if a colleague didn't contextually understand :potato: or :box:, they'd probably just ask, maybe via IM, but neither of those are in our picto-lexicon. (It is too a word. since just now.)

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Our team jumps back and forth between Slack and Jira for communication, but have found that some really simple emojis are helpful in both systems for common actions/responses: 

๐Ÿ‘€ : acknowledging that you've seen the message and are reviewing anything requested. 

๐Ÿ‘ : looks good; no edits needed.

โœ… : task completed. 

On the more fun side, every member of the marketing team has a unique, custom Slack emoji that we use to celebrate good work and give shoutouts. 

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I forgot about custom emojis! I actually think when projects, people, or situations with relatable emotion are turned into emojis, it's like these things are extra official. Almost like a form of inclusion by taking the extra step to recognize these things. 

Great reminder, @Lauren Girard!

Like โ€ข Lauren Girard likes this
Alex Koxaras Community Leader Sep 08, 2022

@Christine P_ Dela Rosa 

  1. What are your most common emojis used? ๐Ÿ˜€ ๐Ÿ˜‰  ๐Ÿคฃ 
    1. Or do you most commonly see? I usually see the above, but for sure there are plenty more in my daily life, such as ๐Ÿ’— or ๐Ÿ˜

    2. And for what purpose? TO be honest, most of the times I want to be typical or to avoid replying.. :)
  2. What emojis to you try and avoid? The ones that I don't fully relate to..
    1. Or dislike seeing when used? I don't dislike per se any emoji
    2. Why? ๐Ÿ™Š
  3. Are there any emojis the have changed in meaning over time? ๐Ÿ™ Is this pray or high five?? :D
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To your #3 point: ๐Ÿ˜‚.

To your first point, I think the heart emojis are pretty great. They used to be cringe for me. But then I realized how hard it is for people to show appreciation or care, especially as more teams go async, and I think that reacting with some kind of "love" emoji is a more accessible way to do that.

Like โ€ข Alex Koxaras likes this
Alex Koxaras Community Leader Sep 09, 2022

Soft skills are hard to acquire @Christine P_ Dela Rosa :)

Thank God my wife taught me the importance of soft skills! Kudos to her! 

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this
Sloan N_ B_ Community Leader Sep 09, 2022

๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘€โœจ๐Ÿคนโ€โ™‚๏ธ๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿ™Œ๐Ÿ“ˆ๐Ÿ“ˆ๐Ÿ“ˆ๐ŸŽฎ๐Ÿคฃ๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚๐Ÿ˜‚

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Sloan N_ B_ Community Leader Sep 09, 2022

(How not to use them.)

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Confession: when I see a string of lines with only emojis I skip them. It's basically nonsense to me!

But I also think the author isn't intending for people to read their line(s) as if it were another language. Or is that naive of me to think? 

Sloan N_ B_ Community Leader Sep 13, 2022

If you see a line of emojis like this it is usually supposed to tell a story, or a joke.

I use emoji like that with friends for memes and as reactions in texts. Never at work, I promise.  ๐Ÿ˜‰

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Time and place for everything, totally.

And, I believe you, @Sloan N_ B_, lol.

Like โ€ข Anne Saunders likes this

๐Ÿ‘ and ๐Ÿ™

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

That's a good example - thumbs-up is fine, but the hands clasped has (at least) three meanings to the people I chat with regularly.

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Hi @Christine P_ Dela Rosa 

Really, it is crazy, lot of people I see using emoji's, I am not that much habituated to use, 

if I see emojis in chat, I simple send an smiliy emoji. 

But these emoji's have emotions, feeling, etc.... the way of expressing other person's feeling. 

Vikram P 

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

They do carry meaning, @vikram , I agree! It's a matter if how we interpret the emoji is how others interpret them. 

Like โ€ข vikram likes this

What are your most common emojis used? Or do you most commonly see? And for what purpose?

My most common emoji used is probably this one: ๐Ÿ™Œ I use it for celebrating something or saying that something is nice which is why I also use it a lot as a reaction in Slack. The ๐Ÿ‘emoji I also use to say I've seen the message and acknowledged it. 

I mostly try to limit the use of emojis because 

1. I agree with everyone here that lots of the emojis just have a different meaning to everyone which can cause confusion or discomfort and 

2. I just find them to distracting in a professional or important message especially in email. 

What emojis to you try and avoid? Or dislike seeing when used? Why?

I always try and avoid this one: ๐Ÿ™‚ because I belong to the group of people that find that it looks more passive aggressive than friendly. For me the description slightly smiling face seems not friendly. I always feel a little weird when people use this emoji in a message to me because of how I view it and then I have to remind myself that they use this emoji to be friendly. 

Are there any emojis the have changed in meaning over time?

Not really. Or at least none that I can think of at the moment.

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

I see that your more used emojis carry sentiments of support--praise, affirmation. Which makes sense in a teamwork environment!

Actually, that makes me think it's an interesting exercise for folks to look at their most used emojis (in whatever messaging platform they're on) and see whether that's telling of how they engage with their teammates. 

So, I had rather an interesting incident today.  I'll try to keep it short

  • Bob posted something with a  bit of an emotional load yesterday (in a channel intended for mutual support, so absolutely the right place)
  • Charlie responded with an emoji
  • Bob came to me, highly upset about it, to ask for help and ask why Charlie hated them so much
  • I know both of them, was able to explain that Charlie had innocently meant something else, and got them together to talk about it, and it got sorted as soon as they started using a common language
  • Alice in HR asked me if we can disable emojis that might be misunderstood...

    (I should point out that this was not Adaptavist, despite us also having a support Slack channel, in case one of my colleagues starts to wonder wtf I'm talking about)
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Whoa, a very serious example of when folks don't have the same interpretation of emojis. I'm a little curious as to which emoji it was, but that's beside the point. Use of uncommon language (language where folks didn't share common understanding), was used and led to a lot of discomfort.

I'd go as far to say that the same challenge goes for using less common language via text. Like messages that use slang, pop culture references, abbreviations, etc.

I also wonder about the willingness to discuss message exchanges between the message giver and receiver when they don't make us feel good. Now, not all environments have that level of psychological safety and not all participants realize that there even is a disagreement on interpretation. But, I will say that some of the more open teams I've been on have often asked what an emoji means or why someone used an emoji. This is partially because they're seeking to better understand the use case but also to simply learn more about how someone's feeling.

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Today was very much an edge-case.  Emojis are a lot older than most of us, and the basic ones are well understood. 

The problem I see is with the proliferation of unclear ones.  Frankly, I'd take them out and burn any emoji that you can't put in front of any one of the (almost) 8 billion people on the planet who are old enough to read and (via a translator, of course) be able to agree on the general meaning of it.

They can be really useful, but so many are not.  

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

I definitely feel that. I welcome you or anyone who reads this discussion to throw some of those confusing on here, too. Like a "banned" or at least "used with caution emoji" list lol.

There are also many home-grown custom ones that appeal to a tiny staff audience and make no sense (or can even be offensive, let alone confusing) to everyone else. And to have to develop a glossary as an aid adds almost defeats the purpose of creating new emojis for more nuanced communication.

Like โ€ข Anne Saunders likes this

"Audience" is a great word.

However you are talking, "know your audience" is the best advice ever.  Your audience might be millions of people (like typing stuff into the Community here), or it might just the three people you live with. 

There is something about clarity that matters, whatever the audience.

Everything I've said here about emojis, and other ways to talk to people, comes back to trying to understand what the other person hears when you talk.

Empathy is harder than we think, but clear communication does help.

Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

My (admittedly small and close) team has a ton of custom emoji we'd never use in a client setting, but leaving those aside, I think the informally banned list for us is:

  • peach and eggplant/aubergine (obviously),
  • the very culturally specific ones, like the kaaba, but especially the ones like :japanese_ogre: and :japanese_goblin:, 
  • any of the nausea/barf related ones, and
  • the poop with eyeballs.
Like โ€ข Christine P_ Dela Rosa likes this

I had to look up the culturally specific ones you mentioned, @Anne Saunders. I was like: "oh! This is why I don't know them because no one uses them." 

Like โ€ข Anne Saunders likes this

@Anne Saunders - the poop emoji reminds me of an older version of Jira.  It used to be a good way to test if a Server/DC install had been set up with a badly configured MySQL database! 

Nowadays, the admin health checks just tell you, but the number of times I've had "my content won't save / render / export" because it's got the poop emoji in it and the MySQL database has the wrong language and/or collation settings...

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