The Pareto Principle soaked into the fabric of modern society. Everyone knows it’s about the 80/20 disparity. But how did it start? How does it apply to real-life situations?
In a world where work from home is the new norm, nothing matters more than effective communication, especially via good old email. Let’s admit it, some of us will be tempted to reach for a 3.3K-item repository of emojis to make our messages feel more friendly and approachable.
But does using emojis really help in work-related contexts?
That’s exactly what we set out to find out.
We asked 1,000 people to read the same sample emails and answer follow-up questions. 502 people read messages that included emoji symbols and 498 read the same messages but without emoji. This is what we learned.
First, the Setup
We didn’t want the same respondents to read the same message in two versions to avoid biased replies. That’s why we set up two separate surveys for two separate groups of people whose age and gender makeup was representative of American society. Then we ran our surveys very much in line with A/B testing methodologies and compared the results.
Our seven email samples represented typical work-related scenarios. From a simple organization-wide memo detailing a company outing to a coronavirus policy update to an automated OOO message.
Each sample was followed by a set of questions to evaluate the message’s professionalism, friendliness, clarity, and sentiment. In some cases, we asked our respondents to also evaluate the message’s seriousness, honesty, or say if they would act upon it.
A Little Less Emoji a Little More Professionalism, Please
The first finding that struck us was that in general, any business-related email that contains emoji is more likely to be seen as unprofessional. Our results show that only 40% of respondents perceive emails that include emoji as professional. This number soars to almost 70% if you refrain from using emoji.
This is very much in line with the findings of a 2017 Ben-Gurion University study which concluded that “[smileys] decrease perceptions of competence.” What we managed to additionally notice, though, is that some types of emoji-embellished messages take the biscuit and don’t resonate with certain groups of people. Here’s a look at several examples—
The same is true about health and safety updates as shown through our coronavirus memo sample. If you want to make it look professional, leave out emoji. This way, almost 82% of respondents will consider it was written by a pro. If you do include them only about 45% of respondents will think likewise.
Any business-related email that contains emoji is more likely to be seen as unprofessional.
Surprisingly, it’s a very bad idea to include emoji in your OOO autoresponder. The difference in the perceived professionalism of such a message is 38% with emoji vs. 74% without it. Also, people working in large organizations employing over 500 people should be particularly wary. Why? Because only a meager 35% of your coworkers who’ll read an emoji-spangled autoresponder message from you will perceive it as professional, compared to 85% who would if you left out emoji entirely.
Interestingly, younger generations don’t seem to be more lenient towards emoji usage as far as perceived professionalism goes. This trend is reflected by a generally lower percentage of those aged 39 and below who agree that messages with emoji seem professional.
Additionally, our survey demonstrated that both men and women see eye to eye when it comes to professionalism or lack thereof associated with using emojis in work-related email communication.
Emojis and the Perception of Friendliness
According to a 2019 Adobe Study, 81% of emoji users believe that people who use emoji are friendlier. With this in mind, we wanted to see if work-related emails also come across as more friendly if they employ emoji.
The answer? Yes, but not by a huge margin. On average, 64% of respondents agree that messages with emoji come across as friendly. About 58% of respondents regard the same messages as friendly without a single emoji. Also, note that it comes at the cost of being seen as less professional.
Is Everything Clear? 🤨
The already cited Adobe emoji study reveals that about 61% of emoji users admit to resorting to them at work. However, other studies (e.g. one by Kristin Byron published in The Academy of Management Review) suggest that communicating emotion via email is likely to cause miscommunication.
This is exactly why we were curious to see if including or eliminating emojis from an email makes the message clearer. Especially, since emojis are supposed to indicate what kind of emotion a person intends to communicate.
The conclusion? If the message is clear it is clear with or without emojis (ca. 79% w/ emoji vs. 80% w/o emoji).
But is it equally clear to everyone?
Yes, the message is clear universally, regardless of the respondent’s gender, age, or size of the company they work for. Interestingly enough, when probing the clarity dimension, we noticed two outliers—both in the case of the coronavirus status update message.
The outliers concerned women and our younger respondents, both of whom were more likely to admit that the email with emojis wasn’t as clear as the one without them. More precisely, the message w/o emoji was considered clear by almost 90% of women (that’s 12% points more than the message w/emojis). Likewise, 85% of younger respondents regarded the message w/o emoji as clearer than the emojified version (74%).
What could this mean? For one thing, it undermines a common myth of the young and women being indiscriminate emoji users. For another, some contexts don’t seem to be well-suited for emoji at all. And finally, studies into the age group and sex differences in emoji use indicate that women and the young don’t simply use emoji more often than others, but they know the lingo better than anyone else. The conclusion? We should trust their judgments regarding emoji usage.
Why So Serious?
We added an extra question to some of the sample emails to explore other dimensions of these particular messages. For example, we believed that the coronavirus sample warranted an additional question about the seriousness of the message.
It turned out that there was a large hiatus in the perceived seriousness of the message within the exact same groups of respondents that challenged the very message’s clarity i.e. women and younger generations.
Among our female respondents, only 61% agreed that the version with emoji was serious while out of those presented with an emoji-free version almost 90% considered the message serious. The difference was almost just as high among respondents younger than 39, where slightly over 60% considered the message w/emoji serious, while the emoji-free version was viewed as serious by almost 82%.
One of our samples was a message urging the recipient to send a missing attachment as soon as possible. We thought that an additional question along the lines of Would you act on this message? was fitting.
The answers differed among the same two groups of respondents i.e. younger generations and women. This time the emoji-free message would prompt into action 11% more younger respondents than the same message w/emoji (83% vs. 72%). Among women, 86% would be more likely to act on the message without emoji compared to 78% who would if they received a message w/emoji.
There’s no room for emojis in work-related messages that are supposed to set a serious tone or call people into action.
Even though the differences aren’t monumental, it’s clear that there’s no room for emoji in work-related messages that are supposed to set a serious tone or call people into action.
Finally, we wanted to see if emoji usage has anything to do with perceived honesty. In short, no. If you’re admitting to failure or apologizing to someone, emojis will do nothing to either increase or decrease your honesty. On average, about 80% of people will trust you anyway.
Feel Good Inc.
Last but not least, we asked our respondents about the general sentiment of each of the samples—did the message feel positive or negative.
Our initial assumption was that the emojified versions will have a more positive vibe and inspire more likability and sincerity. Well, we were wrong.
It turned out there were no differences in the perceived sentiment of the message regardless of whether or not it used emojis in almost all cases.
Yes, you got it right. In almost all cases. The one whose sentiment was perceived differently was the message we honestly had the lowest expectations about—the automated OOO reply.
The emojified version felt positive to about 52% of respondents, while the same message devoid of emojis came across as positive to just over 40% of our respondents. It’s worth noting that the same sentiment was shared among all age groups and genders.
What’s interesting, though, is that the same OOO message w/emoji is also perceived as the least professional of all the samples we’ve tested. Well, at least it feels good 😉.
Our study shows that using emojis in work-related email communication has minimal impact on the perception of a message’s sentiment, clarity, friendliness, or honesty.
Additionally, including emojis in emails can badly affect their perceived professionalism and seriousness.
Arguably, one of the most inadequate usages of emojis in professional communication is adding them to the OOO autoresponder. Such messages are universally regarded as highly unprofessional.
Also, it’s not advisable to use emoji symbols in messages that are to be seen as serious or should prompt the recipient into action.
For this study, we collected answers from 1,000 respondents through Amazon's Mechanical Turk. 502 of our respondents read email samples with emoji and 498 of our respondents read email samples without emoji. In each case, the respondents consisted of 52% males and 48% females. Each sample's average age was 38 with a standard deviation of 12.
This self-report study probed into people’s attitudes towards work-related email communication with and without emoji symbols. Respondents were funneled into two separate test groups, shown email samples (with and without emoji), and asked to read seven email samples and answer up to five scale-based follow-up questions. Given the experimental design, data can provide a suggestion for when and if emoji use in professional email works for or against the writer.
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