Oct 23, 2022 - Economy

How emoji can divide the workplace

A magnifying glass examining an angel emoji and revealing a poop emoji

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

As emoji become an increasingly important tool for communication, their meanings can be blurrier than ever.

πŸ’¬ Why it matters: Workplace communications have become more relaxed in recent years, yet 91% of workers say their messages have been misunderstood or misinterpreted, according to a study conducted by video messaging platform Loom β€” and emoji might be making matters worse.

⏩ Catch up quick: According to a recent viral Reddit thread, there can be a generational divide on the meaning behind certain emoji.

  • In the thread, several members of Gen Z β€” anyone born in 1997 and beyond β€” said they considered the use of β€œπŸ‘,” to be passive aggressive and rude.

πŸ€·β€β™€οΈ Zoom out: The use of memes, phrases and emoji trickle up. Often, by the time older generations start to communicate with them, these digital norms have already evolved in the minds of younger generations β€” sometimes negatively.

πŸ”Ž Zoom in: Emoji are no different, and some members of Gen Z consider the commonly used 😭 , ❀️ and πŸ‘ to be cringeworthy, according to a 2021 poll.

  • Even the act of sending a smiley face can mean different things to people of different generations.
  • Some emoji have ulterior meanings that stretch across generations, too β€” like the not-so-subtle eggplant, corn or peach.
  • There are also larger issues of cultural appropriation, accessibility and inclusion within the emoji library. While the emoji options have become more diverse over time, 83% of users want to see more representation, according to Adobe's Global Emoji Diversity and Inclusion Report.

🎀 What they’re saying: Digital communications can come across as solely transactional and relationships can't be built on the backs of emojis, explains Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

  • "The concern with any kind of written communication is that you're losing the spirit in which things are intended β€” and we try to annotate it through excessive punctuation, capitalization or smileys," says Tannen. "But there's an inherent ambiguity and playfulness with emojis and because of that, their meanings and use can change very fast."

πŸ–₯ Between the lines: Roughly half of workers overthink the communications they send, and 62% say worrying about miscommunication at work affects their overall mental health, according to Loom's study.

  • But emoji can help create workplace camaraderie. In a survey conducted by Slack, 53% of workers said they use emoji in workplace communications, andΒ 67% feel more bonded with a colleague who understands their emoji use.
  • According to Adobe's study, a majority say emoji establishes unity, respect and understanding and 89% of global users say that emoji help bridge language barriers.

πŸ€” The intrigue: We love emoji here at Axios, which led to a lively debate in our newsroom about the right way to use them.

  • Gen Z-er Lydia Massey: "I refused to use the thumbs-up emoji when I first started working remotely because, on a visceral level, the tone felt off. At best, it was dismissive and at worst, it was a middle finger. But I can also logically recognize it for what it actually is: a fast way to communicate."
  • Hope King's Millennial point of view: "Like all forms of communication, emoji expression is individualistic and depends on the relationship between two people. Learn their patterns, be yourself, don’t afraid to edit, and keep it FUN! 😜🀠😎"
  • Nicholas Johnston's Gen X thought bubble on the controversial use of πŸ‘: "What the heck? πŸ€” I feel like I just figured out how to effectively use emojis. And now I am being a jerk? πŸ‘Ž Well I have one thing to say about that.... 'It's the children who are wrong.'"
  • Scott Rosenberg (tail-end Baby Boomer): "Every generation wants and needs to invent its own new 'authentic' style of communication to set itself apart, so the rise and fall of emojis is hardly surprising. They're especially treacherous because they render differently on different platforms β€” but words often don't connect as intended, too. Communication is hard! In the workplace, 'assume good intent' is a smart starting point, unless someone has proven themselves to be a jerk."
  • Russell Contreras' perspective: "Some Latino and Indigenous users prefer culturally relevant emojis to express affirmation. Axios newsdesk editor Laura MartΓ­nez regularly uses πŸ’ƒπŸΎ when she finds something fun or ironic. Alaska Native poet Joan Naviyuk Kane will thumb out an πŸ¦… for a text message she endorses."

βš–οΈ The bottom line: People have different communication styles β€” in words as well as symbols. Always consider your audience and relationship with them before hitting send.

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