Communicating with Emojis – Business Appropriate or Downright Childish?


Did you know that the first emoji was actually created over 20 years ago? In the early 1990s, a young Japanese engineer by the name of Shigetaka Kurita was working for a business called NTT DoCoMo specifically on a pager aimed at teenagers. The inclusion of a pictogram as part of the text is often considered to be the creation of the ‘emoji. In this case, it was a single love-heart – and was the first time that a digital symbol had been used in text.

The term emoji is actually a portmanteau– ‘e’ (picture) and ‘moji’ (character) and is now one of the most recognised words in the world, particularly amongst tech-savvy millennials who will often use as many pictures during communications as actual text.

The popularity of the emoji has even reached the level whereby emojis even starred in their own movie (the 2017 Sony and Columbia Pictures collaboration, ‘The Emoji Movie’ – starring Christina Aguilera, Patrick Stewart and James Corden), whilst an economic report issued by the White House  in 2015 featured several emojis.

Are emojis ever appropriate for business communication?

There are different items to consider when it comes to the use of emojis. Firstly, there is a fair degree of pressure on designers and artists themselves to come up with the correct standards for emojis. If we agree that the use of emojis are appropriate for business use, that in turn places a responsibility to ensure that emojis are culturally sensitive, provide different options for users (such as skin colour), and are clear in their meaning.

In 2007, Google requested that the Unicode Consortium, a not-for-profit organisation primarily tasked with creating universal standards and a one-size-fits-all coding scheme, recognised and created the frameworks under which pictograms (emojis) could be unified cross-platform.

However, there still remained the notion that an emoji could actually be mis-interpreted. For example, if you saw this emoji, what would you think is trying to be conveyed?

A ballerina? A girl patting her head? Surprise? – if you thought any of these you’d be mistaken. This emoji is actually intended as an ‘OK’ symbol – the “O” shaped sign being created by the girl’s arms is a Japanese gesture to indicate all is well.

There are many other examples of emojis being mistaken or misused, which, although may seem fairly trivial in the scheme of things, does highlight one of the major flaws of communicating with emojis. Fundamentally, a user’s (mis)use of an emoji could mean something totally different to what they were actually trying to convey. Suddenly the short cut has become the long way round.

The majority of emoji-users, when asked about why they include emojis in text, tend to give familiar responses – “it’s fun, light-hearted”, “I like to be visual”, “text is boring”… and for most part, these sentiments are difficult to argue with. Countless studies have shown how certain receptors in the brain react differently to images rather than text and many individuals do like to ‘break up’ lines of text via smartphone, IM or email by including an  emoji.

The flip-side is to label the use of the emoji as childish. A study conducted by the University of Amsterdam found that a group of 500 random employees across different businesses considered the use of emojis as “annoying” and it made workers “appear less intelligent, less competent” and that workers would “likely avoid asking the opinion of that user”.

When considering the demographics of the study there was a  stark contrast between ‘young professionals’ and older adults (aged 49+) surveyed – with the nearly half of the first group claiming to find the use of emojis as work-appropriate, whereas only 28% of the older generation said the same.

Perhaps the most stark statistic from the study found that when it related to a customer or prospect (i.e. someone that your business may not have interacted with before) – the use of emojis in business communication was deemed to be a massive faux pas. Employees from these businesses responded to say that they would likely “stay away” from prospects who communicated by using emojis with 45% of the audience saying that they ‘actively disapproved’ of receiving documentation featuring emojis.


Love them or hate them, they are here to stay.

Whatever your perspective on emojis, it is difficult to argue with consensus that they are likely to form large parts of communication – both business and personal – for many years to come. During the initial phases of emojis appearing in communication, particularly on social media platforms, a user was often instructed to **insert X emoji** almost as a prompt to include a visual representation of a point being made or an idea being introduced. This may have seemed like a redundant instruction – why would anyone need to include an emoji if the point is explained in the body of the text? However, this is the point being underlined; that a certain user-base found it more appropriate, fun, or engaging to include pictures with text even if it meant typing additional commands on a keyboard. In many modern workplaces – where the use of IM tools like Slack, Teams, or Troop is common, you only need to scroll through the conversation history of users to see how many emojis are intertwined with text.

There are also a variety of new applications and emoji keyboards which allow users to customise their own emojis and create templates to add emojis too – this has proven, unsurprisingly, very popular amongst the younger generation of users.

Emojis are ever-evolving and this lends itself to the ever-evolving digital world in which many of us operate. In the last two years, emojis have been created to include gender-neutral designs, they have replaced legacy internet-language acronyms such as ‘LOL’ and ‘OMG’ and there have been hundreds of new designs approved to keep up with the latest trends in our every-day life.

Traditionalists may still reject the use of emojis in communication and as highlighted, there would appear to be a ‘time and a place’ on when indeed to use them and whilst Unicode still receives requests for new designs, then the only certainty that exists is that we are going to continue to see more emojis. A question to leave you with – if you were to submit a design request to Unicode, what would it be for? What emoji could we be missing just now that could form part of worldwide communication for many years to come?


To discuss your technology recruitment needs, or emoji design, contact Josh Moreland at [email protected]

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