Email, text, Instant Messaging and other text-based communication has changed the way we work. It’s allowed us to work remotely in ways never imagined only a generation ago. It also has changed the tone, style, and professionalism of that communication. So before you answer the question in our title, here are a couple of other questions for you.
What is your reaction when you receive an email with a winky-face emoji attached? Does it matter more or less if it comes in an instant message from someone you know? If you don’t know the person sending it, do you feel friendlier or frostier as a result of getting the big smiley emoticon?
An article in New Zealand’s HR Director magazine surveyed 2000 people in that country and found some interesting changes in attitude over the last few years:
- People between 16 and 24 have an overwhelmingly positive outlook on the use of emoticons, while nearly half the people over 55 think they are unprofessional, weird, or indecipherable
- Things are changing though. 59% have received email or messages containing a thumbs up or a wink from their boss
- Over 40% of respondents say they’ll send an emoji to a co-worker if they think it will get a smile out of that person
That last one is really the key—we send emoticons in order to elicit an emotional response from the other person. If you are of a (ahem) certain age, that may rankle at first; I know it did for me. I was a late adopter of emojis but have grown to like the little devils in small doses. Here’s how I came to change my tune.
Emojis can actually enrich our communication
When Microsoft Lync came out, one of the features that had me scratching my head was the sheer number of emojis and symbols available in the chat. The grumpy old man in me said, This is ridiculous and childish. This is work and people should be professional. Oh, and get off my lawn.
But as I taught more classes using that tool, I realized that people were desperate to connect and have fun with each other. They gave people a thumbs up for making a good point, or teased each other—often using words that might seem harsh or be misinterpreted without the little laugh/crying guy to take the sting out. At first I was disdainful, but after a while it dawned on me that this is the same behavior we engage in when we are all together in the conference room: we tease, we make jokes, we support people with smiles and body language. By limiting the use of these in online communication we are limiting the ways we can connect and build relationships. Now I tell people to have at it. I have yet to have to chastise anyone for going too far or becoming an annoyance.
People are using these little symbols (and there are more created by the day) as a way of overcoming the isolation and limitations of online—particularly text—communication. We want to help create and maintain relationships through empathy, humor, and supporting our message with non-verbal means.
All communication has rules and group norms
That doesn’t mean we have carte blanche to use them any time, in any communication. Just as the words we choose should be appropriate to the message and the audience, the same is true of pictures and symbols. These little pictographs can undercut the importance of your message. And if you don’t know your audience well, you run the risk of appearing unprofessional, immature, or inappropriate. The easiest way to judge is to take the other party’s lead. If they send you a smiley face, they’ve given you permission to do the same. If the wording and tone of the message are formal or extremely business-like, it’s probably wrong to answer with the crying/laughing guy, just as it would be to laugh when the boss is chewing you out in person.
Use your head, people. But also, don’t be so mired in the old ways of communicating that you miss out on a chance to humanize yourself to you co-workers and colleagues.
But seriously, stay off my lawn.
What about you? What’s been your experience with emojis and trying to connect with people you don’t work with physically? Successes? Horror stories? Let’s see them in the comments.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.