Emojis, those little pictures we use in all types of online communications, can convey emotional context that words alone cannot and can completely change the meaning of a sentence. They’ve become commonplace, even in business communications, although it’s debatable whether that’s wise. Their precise meaning is open to interpretation, depending upon a number of factors, meaning that the recipient may understand an entirely different message than what the sender intended. Unsurprisingly, that has resulted in litigation.
Emojis made their first appearance in a published court opinion in 2018 when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals published a poop emoji that had been submitted as evidence in an employment discrimination case. According to Eric Goldman, Emoji law expert and professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, 586 US court opinions referenced emojis or emoticons (pictures created by a series of punctuation signs, letters, and numbers) by the end of 2021. He noted a 23% increase in 2021 over the previous year.
By now, emojis are just another type of nonverbal/non-textual communications for courts to interpret and factor in a wide variety of cases.
Emoji use in the business world, for good or ill, is widespread. The 2021 Adobe Global Emoji Trend Report showed that 69% of global emoji users say they use emojis at work but that differs by generation. Gen Z’ers (75%) and Millennials (77%) are more likely to report emoji use at work versus Gen X’ers (69%) and Boomers (52%).
Eight-eight percent of all emoji users feel more empathetic towards someone who also uses those icons to communicate, and 67% of global emoji users think people who use them are cooler, funnier, and friendlier than those who don’t. Two-thirds of respondents like it when others use emojis at work and think it increases likeability and credibility.
Ninety percent of emoji users say it’s easier to express themselves through those little icons. Emojis make it easier to share ideas quickly, resulting in more efficient team decision making and reducing the need for meetings and calls.
A picture is worth a thousand words—or is it?
Written communication lacks the subtleties of facial expressions, body language, hand movements, tone of voice, etc., which add meaning or color or even completely change the meaning of text. Emojis can add back that context, conveying emotion, intent, or personality without using a lot more words. Workplace expert and author, Ryan Jennings wrote in Entrepreneur Magazine (“How to Improve Communication Between Generations in the Workplace,” July 6, 2020) that 83% of Gen Z emoji users are more comfortable expressing their emotions through emojis than in a phone call, compared to Millennials (71%), Gen X (61%), and Baby Boomers (53%).
Not a universal language
Emojis are not a universal language with universal meaning. The Unicode Consortium was established in 1991 to standardize the creation, development, and introduction of new emojis. But more than 20 years later, there’s still no established definition for what an individual emoji means, nor a single version of what a given emoji should look like.
Each operating system and platform has proprietary emojis which can result in inconsistencies and miscommunications across devices. The sender may select one emoji on their device, yet the receiver may receive a different-looking emoji on their end. It may vary in size, color, shape, and level of detail depending on whether it’s viewed on a Windows or a Mac PC, an Android phone, or an iPhone. The same sender and recipient may later look at the same message on a different one of their own devices and see something else again.
Moreover, the same message can look different before and after an operating system update. The device will show most recent version which may look different from what was originally sent or received. And, if the emojis become material evidence in a court proceeding, the various e-discovery software platforms display the same emoji differently.
For a dramatic illustration of how a possibly benign emoji could be viewed by the recipient using another platform, see: https://emojipedia.org/pistol/
A 2018 survey of over 700 Twitter users showed that at least 25% were unaware that emojis look different to people using different platforms. Importantly, 18% of them indicated that they would edit or not send a recent emoji-bearing tweet had they known how it displayed on other platforms.
Open to interpretation
The true meaning of an emoji is in the eye of the beholder and more likely to be misinterpreted than actual language. Sometimes they carry metaphorical or symbolic meanings; sometimes their meanings are culture- or context-specific. Despite the sender’s best intentions, the recipient might end up feeling confused at best, or offended or threatened, at worst. For example, the thumbs up emoji is considered offensive or vulgar in many countries in the Middle East. The smiley face emoji often is interpreted as expressing sarcasm in China. Yet both usually are considered a positive expression in most other countries.
Emojis also can acquire secondary, tertiary, or more meanings. For example, an eggplant can mean more than a vegetable and a peach more than a piece of fruit, depending upon context. Their meanings evolve over time and change faster than do the meaning of words. Furthermore, they can take on different meanings among various generations. The 2021 Adobe year-end report showed 63% of Gen Z’ers use emojis differently than their intended meaning.
For all the above reasons, both the sender and the recipient of an emoji can have legitimate, divergent understandings of the same communication. Thus, emoji users’ paramount consideration must not be what they see and what they intend, but rather what the recipient sees and how they interpret it. Moreover, if an emoji becomes evidence in litigation, a jury of 12 citizens from diverse backgrounds can have 12 different interpretations.
Is the risk worth the reward?
Whatever benefits emojis may offer – humor, accessibility, a “cool” factor, or efficient shorthand–they may be more than outweighed by the risk of misinterpretation or misuse. Now that they are pervasive in the online messaging platforms that became even more commonplace during the pandemic, the risks multiplied, especially since people tend to communicate less carefully with emojis than they would using the written word.
Users of emojis in business contexts must consider the relative power positions of the parties and the level of formality appropriate for the particular communication. Some lawyers and HR professionals recommend that employers consider banning emojis or limiting the emojis that may be used in work-related correspondence to help curb any chances for misuse or misinterpretation.
So, as you observe World Emoji Day—do so with care!
*World Emoji Day was created in 2014 by Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia, a site that keeps track of all emojis and their definitions. July 17 was chosen for the date of the holiday because the calendar emoji has that date on it as displayed on iPhones. It was on that date in 2002 that iCal for Mac, the first calendar application for Mac OS X to offer support for multiple calendars, was announced.