Business Services, Clutch Report

How Work Emoticons in Emails Lead to Translation Mistakes

March 16, 2021

by Anna Peck

Senior SEO Specialist at

More than three-quarters (77%) of employees used an emoji at work in 2020. Clutch surveyed 500 employees in the U.S. about their use of work emoticons in the office. Employees recognize the benefits of using emojis in professional communication but expect translation mistakes as different generations navigate the digital workspace.

At her internship at a social media agency during the summer of 2020, Gigi Robinson, 22, wanted to lighten the mood. She had been tasked with following the saga of Trump v. Tik Tok

In a group Slack message, Robinson sent a surprise with “uh-oh, I wonder what will happen.” The quick message was followed by a call from her supervisor addressing how nonchalant the use of that emoji was while communicating with the whole team. 

Translation mistakes, such as the ones made by Robinson, are occurring more frequently in the workplace with the increase of online communication. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the traditional workplace and led to awkward interruptions during Zoom calls and constantly updating Slack statuses. In this atmosphere, a different way to express emotions and feelings has swept into work environments: emojis.

Communication has had to evolve quickly, leading people to increasingly rely on emojis to express themselves to a remote audience. 

In a survey conducted in October and November 2020, Clutch found that 77% of employees had used emojis at work within the past three months.

77% use emojis

While emojis remain popular additions to Slack and text messages, work emoticons are becoming a communication tactic for businesses. But, what happens when you send the tongue emoji to your boss and not your work bestie? 

Keeping up with communication trends in a remote working environment is key, but it is also important to consider your audience to avoid making translation mistakes that could lead to big misunderstandings. 

Our Findings 

  • Employees say that conveying a tone without words (17%) and cultivating a less formal work culture (11%) are advantages of using emojis in the workplace. The remote working environment has made building a connection in the workplace harder than ever. 
  • 33% of employees use emojis in their email correspondence, but 60% of employees believe that using them in emails is unprofessional. Only 9% believe that emojis in emails can be professional, and say that it depends on the audience. 
  • Translation mistakes are likely to occur between age groups. 22% of employees 45 and older have misunderstood an emoji they’ve received in the workplace. Fewer employees between the ages of 18-34, (12%) have experienced a similar issue. 
  • 31% of employees only use emojis when communicating with their non-manager colleagues, and only 20% of employees have used an emoji with their CEO or direct manager. Employees are more likely to use work emoticons with people who have similar seniority and tenure.

Employees Believe Using Emojis at Work Has Its Advantages

Who knew that a simple yes could mean so much? 

Nearly 1 in 5 employees (17%) say that the main advantage of using emojis at work is that they can convey a tone without using words. 

graph 1 - what do employees use emojis

Some employees (11%) even believe that emojis help cultivate a less formal work culture. 

“The advantage of using emojis at work is that it can keep communication more exciting and less dull,” Joshua C. Moon, an accountant at Sunshine Accounting & Bookkeeping said. “Communication on a daily basis at work can become very monotonous and emojis have a natural way of shifting the mood in a workplace.” 

Salinder Kohil, lead developer of Coffeeble, a resource for coffee enthusiasts, has seen an increase in emojis at this workplace. 

“I think people are more inclined to send emojis now, as things have become a little more relaxed,” said Kohil. 

“I think people are more inclined to send emojis now, as things have become a little more relaxed.”

The remote working environment has its benefits and stresses. While employees can wear comfy clothes and sleep in without worries of a commute, the office connection we once had is gone. 

There are no more conversations around the coffee machine; all of that has moved to Slack channels. 

Chelsea Roller, a content marketing manager at Rank Fuse Digital Marketing, says that she has used Slack a lot more since the pandemic began, which indirectly correlates with her increase in emoji usage. 

“Since everything can seem harsh over text channels, I use emojis all the time to convey extra emotion,” Roller said. “A smile or laugh can show that you’re not trying to sound angry or demanding.”

Roller says that the main advantage of using emojis at work is the joy it can create. During a tough year, employees found ways to bring that joy in an office setting.  

Most Employees Concerned That Email Emojis are Unprofessional, But Not in Marketing Emails

Think twice before pressing send on that emoji-filled email. 

One-third of employees (33%) use business emojis in emails. 

Julie Aragon, a residential mortgage broker,  and her employees use emojis in their emails frequently. 

“We try and use emojis whenever possible,” Aragon said. “We regularly get compliments for our fun yet informative messaging.”   

Employees find that using emojis in the workplace can build connections, but only a select few believe they work well in internal and client-facing email correspondence. 

6 in 10 people (60%) believe that emojis in work emails are unprofessional. 

60% unprofessional emails

Jeremy Fuller, managing director at Tulsa Marketing, a marketing and design agency, understands that conclusion.

“I would agree that emojis can be perceived as unprofessional, especially in the beginning stages of a new relationship,” Fuller said. “However, I have found that they can lighten the conversation and bring emotion into an email, which can be helpful.” 

Danny Anthony, owner of BGT Photography, takes the middle ground when it comes to email emojis. 

“The standard emojis like a smile or checkmark are safe for a professional environment,” Anthony said. “Certain emojis with explicit connotations are obviously unprofessional at any level.”

Chris Riley, co-founder and CEO of USA Rx, a health marketplace, takes a similar approach.

“I prefer not to have emojis in workplace memos or in serious emails to clients as they can distract from the tone you’re trying to strike,” Riley said. “How would you feel if you received an email with the subject line: ‘You’re Fired’ cool

Emojis, whether considered professional or not, have found popularity in marketing email campaigns

Subject lines with emojis catch the recipients’ attention, making them more likely to click

Along with that extra nudge, emojis can also become part of a company’s brand. You know a weekly promo sale from your favorite clothing store is coming when the fire emoji hits your inbox. 

So why are emojis are tried and tested success for marketing campaigns, but not for work communication?

“Since emojis are a visual element, it helps retain a consumer’s attention,” Sonya Schwartz, founder of Her Norm, a relationship advice blog, said. “It also makes it easier for consumers to understand your email’s message.” 

Moon finds that the effectiveness of emojis in marketing campaigns lies in how quickly the modern business world operates.

“The use of emojis is a great way to show that brevity in getting your point across while grabbing the attention of a younger and up-to-date crowd,” Moon said. 

"The use of emojis is a great way to show that brevity in getting your point across while grabbing the attention of a younger and up-to-date crowd."

Even in professional emails, emojis have their place and value. 

Veteran Employees Are More Likely to Receive Work Emoticons They Do Not Understand

There are over 3,000 emojis. Before selecting which to send, employees must think about their audience.  

Nearly a quarter of employees (22%) over the age of 45 received an emoji they didn’t understand at work. 

22% don't understand

Meanwhile, only 12% of employees between the ages of 18-34 had the same experience. 

Experts say that there is a generational gap between millennial and Gen Z workers and their veteran coworkers. 

“Younger generations tend to dress more casually, speak more casually, and communicate with others through text and email more casually,” Roller said. “Older generations aren’t as used to emojis being part of their daily communications.”

Millennials and Generation Zers have been raised online. From their tech dependency to making friends online, the internet has been ingrained in them at an early age. Their first use of emoticons can date all the way back to AIM

Source: Pinterest

Instant messaging was one of the first avenues for emoticon use, and older generations didn't experience it. 

Ethan Taub, CEO of Goalry, a financial goals service, considers himself part of Generation X. He says that there have been many instances where he’s received an emoji he hadn’t understood from his co-workers.

One time, he mistakenly sent one as well – the grimace emoji.

“The experience was slightly uncomfortable for me at first as the recipient didn’t reply for a considerable amount of time, which wasn’t like them,” Taub said. 

The reason for the delay? His colleague was trying to locate a particular emoji for their reply. 

“Emojis, if taken at face value, mean the same thing to everyone,” Anthony said. “The smiley face has the same meaning to a six-year-old as it does to a sixty-year-old.” 

"The smiley face has the same meaning to a six-year-old as it does to a sixty-year-old."

While Aragon has noticed that some older workers struggle to use emojis, she has been surprised by the savvy some older workers have for digital communication. 

“Older people are less likely to use and understand [emojis], but I’m regularly surprised by older people that aren’t only well versed in emojis, but bitmojis and memes,” Aragon said. 

As younger generations such as Generation Z enters the workplace, the gap between younger and older workers regarding emojis seems likely to grow.

Employees Most Likely to Use Emojis to Communicate With Similarly Tenured Coworkers

You likely wouldn’t send the *FIRE EMOJI* in response to your boss’s headshot, but when you receive a snapshot of your work bestie, an emoji response may be expected. 

People are most likely to use emojis when communicating with non-manager coworkers (31%). 

who do people use emojis with

Only 15% use emojis while communicating with their manager, and only 5% would use them to talk with their company’s CEO or founder. 

“Work emails can have emojis to your colleagues, but for management, things should be kept professional,” Kohil said. 

Vahe Tirakyan, CEO of MDLogica, a marketing and business healthcare consulting agency, uses emojis to communicate with everyone, including clients.

“We share our Asana board with marketing clients so they can see what we’re working on and most of our tasks come with emojis built in,” Tirakyan said. “Not only does it help to visually identify certain tasks, it’s also fun to look at.” 

Roller doesn’t see emojis as inappropriate in the workplace because it matches with the culture of their company, but “a law office using emojis would seem inappropriate.” 

Office culture determines whether or not work emoticons should be used in conversations with different groups. 

Robinson is now self-employed, running her own business as a digital creator. She carries her learning experience from her internship with her. 

“At the end of the day, I was an intern and had to nod my head and move on,” Robinson said.

But, the experience hasn’t ruined emojis for her. She still uses smiley in her emails. 

Work Emoticons Becoming More Popular Despite Challenges to Older Workers 

Employees agree that emojis at work can build connections, but are aware that misinterpreted emojis can be seen as unprofessional. 

Conveying a message efficiently and building a less formal work culture are two advantages of using emojis in the workplace. But a majority of employees believe that there is a time and place for emoji use, arguing that emojis in emails are unprofessional. 

Generational and company divides also have an impact on emoji use and can be a factor when it comes to translation mistakes in communication channels. 

As the working landscape continues to evolve, employees are likely to see an increase in emoji use across channels to help cultivate a positive and productive remote work environment

About The Survey

Clutch surveyed 500 full-time employees across the U.S. about their emoji habits at work in October and November 2020.

About 48% of the respondents were male; 42% were female; and 10% declined to indicate their gender. 
31% of respondents are aged 55 or older; 40% are between the ages of 35 and 54; 14% are aged 25 to 34, and 4% are aged 18 to 24. 

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