The Emoji Question: Overcoming the Limitations of Lean Media

You know this situation well: You’re about to send a message via email or some form of text-based communication, but you’re worried that the right tone won’t come across. What if you’re trying to be humorously sarcastic, but the recipient thinks you’re being serious? Or what if you are trying to be friendly and sympathetic, but the words come across as cold and uncaring?

If you were communicating in person or on the phone, you could modulate the emotional tone of your message with various nonverbal cues, such as smiling, accenting certain words or syllables, shrugging your shoulders, and so on. However, when you are communicating in writing via email, text messaging, or any other lean medium, you don’t have the luxury of these nonverbal cues—the words on screen must convey everything.

The Rise of Emojis

The limitations of lean text-based communication gave rise to the use of emoticons and emojis to convey emotional tone in a way that can be difficult to do with words. (Opinions vary on the exact difference between the two, but for simplicity’s sake, we can think of emoticons as symbols made up of text characters and emojis as graphical icons) Using emoticons and emojis can be an effective way to minimize the limitations of a lean medium, which is why so many people now use them for personal and business communication. A smiley face can inject a touch of levity into a tense situation, a frowny face can convey sympathy for someone who has suffered a setback, and clapping hands can say “job well done!”

Emoji or Not: Two Dilemmas

As useful as these visual elements can be, they present two dilemmas for business communicators. First, even though more businesspeople are comfortable with emoticons and emojis for workplace communication, and they are built into many business communication systems, some professionals view them as inappropriate for all but the most casual communication between close colleagues.

Second, emoticons and emojis can cause problems of their own when people don’t agree on what they mean. If you get a message that says, “Why don’t you and I get away from this stress-fest and brainstorm some solutions over coffee” and ends with a “winkie” emoticon or emoji, what does that digital wink mean? Is the person flirting with you or just innocently suggesting that the two of you could think more clearly if you got out of the hectic office for a while? The meanings of emoticons and emojis are so problematic that they are becoming important factors in legal trials regarding workplace harassment and other issues, and serious criminal cases can hinge on their interpretation.

Using Emoticons and Emojis Effectively: Advice for Students

Given the fluid state of emoticon and emoji acceptance in business communication, there are few hard-and-fast rules. However, students moving into the workplace can follow these tips to make the best use of them while avoiding trouble:

  • As in every aspect of business communication, know your audience and the situation. Study the tone of communication in your organization before deciding when and how to use emojis.
  • Don’t overuse emoticons or emojis. A message cluttered with symbols will look unprofessional, even in an organization that uses emojis regularly.
  • Follow the lead of the person with greater positional power. For example, if an upper manager doesn’t use emojis, don’t use them when communicating back.
  • Bear in mind that the use of emojis itself sends a message. If you are a new manager and your staff seems unsure how to behave around you, or you’ve been leading people through a tense experience, using emojis can send a signal that it’s okay to relax and be themselves.
  • Avoid emoticons or emojis in communication with external audiences unless you have an established working relationship with a customer or other party.
  • Never use emoticons or emojis in the most formal communication, including business plans, sales proposals, and contracts.
  • To avoid misunderstandings about what emojis mean, stick to symbols that are in common use in your organization.
  • Avoid crude or animated emojis.


Adapted from Courtland L. Bovée and John V. Thill, Business Communication Today, 15th ed (Pearson, 2021), 194–195.

Image: Timothy Valentine on CC BY-NC-SA