How to (appropriately) use emoji at work

You keep using that emoji. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Justin Pot
Justin Pot / Published May 28, 2020

My editor Deb loves to ruin things. One time she used her Ph.D. in Italian to ruin an entire emoji.

guys I think there's a major misunderstanding of what :italian-hand-gesture: means and it makes me lol every time. It means what the hell but zapier uses it to replace kissing the hand

The emoji in question is a common Italian hand gesture that, roughly translated, means "what the hell?" This isn't how our team was using it. At some point, we collectively decided to use this emoji to mean "perfection."

katie: hahaha that is beautiful italian-hand-gesture

From what I can gather, people thought it represented kissing your fingertips, the way chefs sometimes do.

Dozens of people used the emoji this way until Deb pointed out the (hilarious) discrepancy. And you know what? Some people still use this emoji to mean perfection. They will probably never stop.

This is a harmless example, but it does point to the inherent ambiguity of emoji—and communication in general. Symbols only have meaning because of a shared cultural context, which means you can't assume everyone is interpreting emoji the same way. That can lead to some awkwardness—especially in a work context.

Maybe don't wink at your coworkers

Consider the 😉. Some people wouldn't think twice about using this emoji in a work context; others cringe at the very thought. There's a gulf in meaning here, just like with the Italian hand gesture.

To some, the wink emoji is a harmless way to clarify that a statement is intended as a joke, or at least intended to be friendly. And there's a lot of precedent here. The winking emoticon—;)—was used this way for decades on Usenet and IRC. It's natural that internet veterans want to use 😉 the same way today.

The problem: that's not how everyone understands this emoji. According to numerous sources from around the internet, the wink emoji implies you're being flirty and/or suggestive. Some people will reflexively interpret any and all 😉 usage in this manner, which is going to radically change the context of any statement you make using it. The best case is that you'll come across as oblivious. Worst case…well, I don't think I have to explain why this is problematic in a work context.

You might disagree with the second interpretation of 😉, and that's understandable. It's also kind of my point: we're all interpreting emoji differently, and that can lead to confusion. But it's not everyone else's job to figure out what you mean.

Take it from a writer: you can't control how other people are going to interpret your message. You can only control what message you send in the first place. To quote the philosopher Jeff Probst: "Perception is reality."

My advice: avoid using 😉 at work entirely. Maybe also avoid 😏, 😋, 😗, 😘, 😜, 😈, 🍑, and especially 🍆, while you're at it.

Other potentially confusing emoji

The wink is far from the only confusing emoji. Here are a few other examples, off the top of my head:

  • 👌 is a gesture that means "ok" in most English speaking countries, but it means…not that in many other countries. So maybe keep that in mind. There are a bunch of emoji, like 🤘, that have this same problem.
  • 👊 is officially named "punch," but some people use it as a fist bump. I'm sure many people are wondering why their coworkers want to punch them in the face (I am not—I know the reason).
  • 🤗 might look like excited jazz hands, but it's officially named "hugging face." So maybe don't send it to anyone you wouldn't hug. In the face.
  • 👯 is sometimes used to express that two people are in sync. But the emoji itself is, inexplicably, two women dressed as Playboy bunnies, which in some contexts is going to distract from the whole "twins" thing.
  • Some people use 🙏 to mean a high five or a thank you; others use it to mean prayer.
  • 🥯 might just look like a bagel, but I recently learned that it's offensive to New Yorkers.
Hannah: It looks like a bagel you’d buy at the grocery store. the surface is too uniformly glossy. it’s too round. where’s the cream cheese. there’s so little cream cheese.

I could go on. The point is that emoji, like any symbols, have different meanings in different contexts. Effective communication depends on understanding that—especially when you're working remotely.

There are three sides to every statement

Communication, in theory, is simple: you say something, and the person you're talking to understands it. But that's not how it actually works. In reality, every time you communicate, you immediately create three distinct statements:

  1. What you meant to say.
  2. What you actually said.
  3. What your audience thinks you said.

Communication is the art of aligning these three things as closely as you can. This is true when you're writing a book, it's true when you're giving a speech, and it's true when you're DMing a coworker.

If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. There's a reason robots are so bad at convincingly talking like a human person—conversation is staggeringly complex. There is so much nuance to every word choice—and to every emoji choice. Most of the time, humans manage this without any problem, which is pretty amazing when you think about it.

But every once in a while, confusion creeps in, which is only natural. We're all making this up as we go along, after all, and communication is also a skill that you have to practice. Part of doing that online means understanding what emoji mean in various contexts.

If you're ever uncertain about something:

  • Ask your coworkers what they think emoji mean. The more context you have the better.
  • If something is confusing to you, point it out! You're probably not the only one who is wondering.
  • There is no shame in Googling an emoji to learn more about its meaning in the broader culture.

Remember: we're all making this up as we go along. There's no shame in not knowing. Just try to keep learning.

Hero image by iabzd from Unsplash.

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