Do You Have Proper Emoji Etiquette … At Work?

Ryan Holmes
Aug 19 · 7 min read

And the winner is … Face With Tears Of Joy (better known as 😂).

Earlier this year, analytics firm Brandwatch announced the results of a survey that looked at the 6 billion-plus emojis used on Twitter over the course of two years. (If you’re curious, the top five most-used emojis were 😂, 😭, 😍, ❤️and 👉.) The authors point out that emoji usage has exploded over the last decade, with upward of 250 million emojis now posted on Twitter each month. Some experts are even calling them the modern-day equivalent of hieroglyphics, a universal pictorial language that transcends cultural and geographic boundaries.

The report concludes with a bold prediction: “Emojis will cement [their] position as the only language that allows us to communicate with anyone globally … emojis will start to replace text as the key provider of context in future conversations.”

Sounds awesome. Just one problem.

It turns out that as emojis diffuse around the globe, their use is also growing increasingly sophisticated, contextual and, well, confusing. Today, more emojis than ever before are being applied by more people in more situations. From easily understandable smiley faces and thumbs up, users have branched out to a vocabulary of literally thousands of emojis. What seemed a “universal language,” easily decoded by anyone, anywhere, is proving anything but.

A brief history of emojis

It all started with emoticons. Way back in the days of standard keyboards (i.e. the ‘90s), users had to get creative to express emotion in text. So they combined letters, numbers and punctuation marks into primitive faces. If you were an Internet user back in the day, you got plenty of :) and :-( and :-O in your emails. (For a more detailed look back, check out this great post on Influencer Marketing Hub.)

Emojis as we know them today were invented in 1999 by a Japanese artist named Shigetaka Kurita. In fact, emoji is a combination of the Japanese words for “picture” and “character.” Kurita wanted a purely pictographic language to convey information. His original 176 emojis included hearts, cars and even a snowman but, surprisingly, didn’t include any human faces.

From Japan, emojis slowly spread around the world and grew in popularity. As usage expanded, Google stepped in to have emojis recognized by the Unicode Consortium — the international body tasked with standardizing letters, symbols and characters from languages all around the world for digital display. This had the effect of ensuring emojis displayed consistently across different types of devices, which further accelerated their spread. Unicode now indexes and defines each emoji as part of the Unicode Standard, which is continually being added to and updated in response to user suggestions.

As emojis have spread, their application has extended well beyond use in informal chats and text messages. In the business context, marketers have discovered that including an emoji in a Tweet can increase engagement by 25 percent. Ad campaigns (both on and off social media) have leveraged emojis in increasingly creative ways to draw attention. In the office, colleagues use emojis to lend context to emails and Slack messages. Emojis have been used as evidence in courts of law and the White House even issued an economic report featuring them.

Twenty years after they were born, there are now nearly 3,000 emojis and counting (so many, in fact, that there’s an interactive “Emojipedia” where you can look them all up). But with the exponential increase in emojis has also come an added challenge: making sense of them all.

Emoji overload?

Though a picture may be worth a thousand words, those words won’t be the same for everyone. Let’s take a well known example: 🙏. The “folded hands” emoji has its origins in Japan, where two hands placed firmly together is used to express please or thank you. But translated to a North American context, the meaning of “folded hands” isn’t quite so transparent. Many users have adopted the emoji as a symbol for prayer, while others use it as a high-five.

Or take a more complex example: ♻️. According to the real-time counter Emoji Tracker, the “recycling symbol” is the third most frequently used emoji of all time on Twitter, with a whopping 963,872,358 uses at time of writing. Does this reflect an overwhelming global commitment to recycling? Not quite. It turns out the symbol is frequently used by apps and sites that post Islamic prayers to Twitter. It’s meant to encourage people to share the posts, and has nothing to do with separating your bottles from your cardboard.

The reality is that many — if not most — emojis aren’t universal. They’re highly contextual, and often depend on a preexisting, shared understanding between users. What means one thing to a certain cultural group or demographic frequently means something entirely different to another. According to one survey, for example, the U.S. leads the world in the usage of the following emoji: 🍆. Are Americans especially in love with eggplant? Well, not exactly. The vegetable is often used in a completely different context. (If you’re unsure which context that is, take a look at Durex’s cheeky social media campaign from back in 2015.) Or consider 💜, ranked number six on Brandwatch’s new list of top-used emojis. Unless you’re a fan of K-pop, you probably didn’t realize that the “purple heart” was associated with the South Korean boy band BTS.

Far from clarifying, many emojis have the effect of muddying or even obscuring nuance and meaning. This is especially poignant in the cultural context. Anything presented as “universal” risks steamrolling some groups to the benefit of others. It’s worth noting that emoji skin tones weren’t introduced, at all, until 2015 — before that there were emojis for everything from jack-o’-lanterns to pine trees, but nothing to represent people of color. Even today emojis can still exclude as much as they include, hiding as much as they reveal. The Brandwatch report, for instance, notes that men are 35 percent more likely to use emojis that represent fear, like 💀or 😨. Does that mean men are innately more threatening? To me, assuming the skull emoji equals fear risks misinterpreting all the users out there who just think it kinda looks rad.

Takeaways for brands

In spite of all this, I want to be clear: I’m a huge fan of emojis. As our text exchanges have been reduced to short blurbs back and forth, the potential for misunderstanding has risen. Emojis can instantly clarify emotional intent and have been consistently shown to drive higher rates of engagement. For businesses, the key is not to avoid emojis but to use them to complement your text, while keeping context and audience top of mind. For most marketers, I’m probably already preaching to the choir, but here are a few best practices for business emoji use to keep in mind:

  • Embrace the go-to emojis: As Emojipedia points out, the most popular emojis are fairly consistent year over year: smiling faces, hearts, hand gestures. In the words of Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge, “Even though there is a long list of animals, sports, objects, and symbols it seems that people want to see themselves or their emotions reflected in the emojis they use.” For companies, tapping this core of proven human-centered emojis is both a safe bet and a way to improve relatability with your audience. This goes both for external communications with customers and internal communications with your team.
  • Know your audience: Beyond that universal core, however, many emojis carry different meanings to different subgroups. Use these emojis right, and it’s a powerful way to appear “in the know.” But misusing them risks “lame dad” syndrome, or worse. Marketing consultant Pratik Dholakiya notes, “[Brands] who fail to understand the proper context are likely to find themselves the butt of the joke in discussions such as those that take place on Reddit’s “fellow kids” subreddit … knowledge of the target audience is essential.” In my own tweets to followers, for example, I use the biceps emoji (💪) a lot. This has nothing to do with pumping iron (and everything to do with showing inner strength), and my followers get that. But I wouldn’t use the same emoji (or any at all) when communicating to senior board members who don’t use emojis themselves.
  • Stay positive and ditch the sarcasm: Emojis themselves tend to be overwhelmingly positive rather than negative (by a three:one ratio, according to Brandwatch). And even seemingly negative emojis are often used sarcastically or ironically. (My guess is that not everyone using 😭is actually crying rivers.) But for brands, it’s probably best to steer clear of the whole spectrum of negative emojis, sarcastic or otherwise. Jessie Hine Jensen, people operations manager at Plex, advises against using emojis “that underscore hate or anger,” noting that it’s “important to be sensitive to how something might be interpreted over online communication tools.”
  • All things in moderation: Yes, those clever “emoji riddles” were kind of fun the first couple times. But no one in the middle of a busy day wants to stop and decipher a string of confusing emojis when a simple text message would be much easier to understand. When communicating in a professional context, it can be fine to sprinkle in a few strategic emojis, but don’t overdo it or compromise the clarity of your message. (Chevy clearly learned its lesson back in 2015, with its first and only emoji press release.)

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The Helm

Business Leaders, in their own words. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

Ryan Holmes

Written by

Entrepreneur, investor, future enthusiast, inventor, hacker. Lover of dogs, owls and outdoor pursuits. Best-known as the founder and CEO of Hootsuite.

The Helm

The Helm

Business Leaders, in their own words. The Helm is a carefully curated collection of insightful content from the business frontlines.

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