15 Jul 2022

When words fail us...

17th July is World Emoji Day and we’re celebrating these handy little icons with a new guide to Emoji Etiquette.

In the early 1980s ‘emoticons’ were created using the existing punctuation, letters and numbers on the keyboard, to evoke humour or irony. Emojis were the next step: they first appeared in Japan in the late 1990s – the word ‘emoji’ comes from the Japanese ‘e’ (picture) and ‘moji’ (character).

These handy little pictographs soon spread worldwide, and eventually they were recognised by the Unicode Consortium and were included on all digital devices. They have continued to evolve and there are now over 3,500 to choose from, including a range of symbols, avatars, miscellaneous objects and human expressions and gestures.

Emojis are used to signal an emotion in a digital communication, and as such are usually positioned after the relevant text that they are enhancing. In a world of instant, fast and, inevitably, pithy communication, they can act as a useful adjunct, signalling a range of emotions, including humour, irony, frustration, sympathy and anger. They are also a good way of instantly creating a positive mood, often using symbols as a rueful way of relaying dreary, everyday updates (eg being delayed due to transport disruption).

They are so popular because text-based digital communication, whilst it has the advantages of speed and accessibility, is deficient when it comes to cues such as body language or tone of voice, which are such an important element of conversation.

Many of us love these handy little pictograms, enjoy browsing through the menu and finding new designs, use them liberally, and get real satisfaction when we find one that is entirely apposite. But when is it appropriate to use them, and can they cause offence? Our etiquette experts have created the following guidelines:

Debrett’s Guide to Emoji Etiquette

• Most people will use emojis in personal texts but, even if you are an avid fan of these useful little icons, it’s important to always be aware of the recipient. You might find, if you are texting an older person, that their tolerance for pictographic communication is quite limited, and it would therefore be a good idea to rein in the emojis.

• If you don’t know the recipient of your text very well, be cautious about using emojis, as they might think that you’re not taking the discussion seriously.

• Emoticons first evolved to indicate that the writer was ‘just kidding’, and emojis still carry that humorous legacy. They are therefore entirely inappropriate if you are dealing with bad news, when sympathy and sensitivity are called for.

• Never use emojis as a cop out, a lazy way of conveying a complex message that would be better communicated in words.

• If you are going online to review a site or service, think carefully about using emojis. A smiley face or thumbs up might be an upbeat end to a positive review, but you really do owe the service providers a more detailed and nuanced critique, and you can only provide that with well thought-out words and sentences. If your review is negative, then you certainly need to provide a more constructive response than a scowling emoji, which could well damage a business.

• Never use emojis when communicating with professionals such as lawyers, accountants, or doctors – you will come across as flaky.

• If you’re communicating with close colleagues at work in a non-formal way, it is fine to use emojis, as you would with friends, but do not use them in any email correspondence that is likely to find its way to managers or clients.

• If, in your working life, you deal with clients, customers or providers, do not use emojis. If they choose to use them, you can follow their lead and reciprocate, but be very careful about your choice of emojis, as you don’t want to come across as unprofessional.

• Do not use emojis when communicating with your boss or senior management (unless you work in a very casual environment).

• Be aware that the use of emojis in professional communications can be misleading. While many of us think that adding a smiley face at the end of an email or WhatsApp message looks friendly, researches at Ben Gurion University of the Negev have revealed that recipients do not read the emoji as a sign of warmth, but instead see it a signal of incompetence.

• If you are writing critical comments, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a smiley or winky face will mitigate them, especially in a professional context. It is likely to cause irritation or confusion, so rely on impersonal, well-chosen words – no emotional gloss is needed.

• Whenever you feel the urge to use an emoji, especially in the world of work, see it as an urgent reminder to check your writing. You may well find that what you want to say can be much more clearly and elegantly expressed in a few well-chosen words.


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