Hari Patience-Davies considers whether smiley faces and emojis have a place in professional communications. 

Screenshot of Twitter - Tweet says "smiley faces aren't considered professional"

Someone I follow on Twitter recently shared the above tweet, which got me thinking. Are smiley faces and emojis always absolute no-nos when it comes to professional communications?

I threw together a very short SurveyMonkey and sent it around on social media. I’m not a market researcher, and this survey had a limited respondent group so we should take these results only as indicative and certainly not academically defensible.

That being said the overall trends matched with reports that women use emojis more than men.

While my respondents were 1/3 male to 2/3 female, women were both more likely to use emojis in their personal lives and used them more often than the male respondents. No one ticked either of the options for extreme emoji use – “My text/IM communications are over 50% emojis” or “I almost never use words – emojis only.”

What was most interesting to me was when I looked online for research into emojis or smileys and business correspondence, I found a lot of articles resulting from a study published in 2017, which said that using smiley faces in an email can make you look incompetent.

That study also included insights about how using a smiley face in a work email with no other indications of gender increased the likelihood that the author was considered to be a woman, and that including a smiley face increased perceptions of warmth at the same time as it decreased perceptions of competence.

A study from 2018 claims that (in the US at least) men and women are now seen by 86% of people as equally intelligent and competent (of the remaining 14%, 9% think women are more intelligent while 5% give the distinction to men), so there shouldn’t be a gender bias here, or at least not a conscious one. Though anyone who has seen anecdotal evidence or had personal experience of gender bias might disagree…

But to return to emojis – in 2017 including a smiley face in an email was seen as negative, and could increase perceptions of incompetence, whereas in my little 2020 survey only 11% agreed with the statement “If I receive an email with emojis in it, I think less of the sender,” and only 28% agreed that “emojis aren’t professional.” So there’s still a social stigma here, but less of one that I expected.

It would seem times may be changing. As younger people with different communication styles enter the workforce, communications trends and expectations change with them. As does language in general – it’s constantly evolving, with new words added to the dictionary every year.

What seems clear from the survey results I have is that emoji use is all about context. Most respondents (61%) said they would only use emoji with work friends, and 39% said they would only use emojis in instant messages or texts but never in an email. No one agreed with the statement that “emojis are for teenagers” – perhaps because 94% of respondents admitted to using them themselves.

So what are the lessons to take forward?

  1. Emojis and smiley faces are not as frowned upon as they used to be – but they’re not totally accepted yet either.
  2. Know your audience – if your boss has loudly proclaimed a hatred of emojis and smiley faces, be sensible and don’t use them… with your boss.
  3. For the most part save your smileys and emojis for your work friends, and for instant messaging and text rather than email.
  4. If we wait 10 years or so, emojis may not only be accepted, but expected – so don’t worry too much about cutting them out entirely. It’s always good to keep up with changes in language, if only so you can respond to confusing pictorial messages from younger family members without having to use a translation site.


Please note: links do not indicate endorsement.

Photo credit: Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *