Why emojis don’t always mean a smiley face in business

Cultural experts warn the rise of emojis should be a concern for global business

Emojis are making big news following the release of The Emoji Movie but cultural experts are warning they do not translate well in global business.
Emoticons were once tipped to provide the world with a global language – one capable of crossing cultural borders. The reality, however, is very different.
Even the most familiar emoji of a grinning face, which might appear universal, can look very different on different devices or operating systems – and be interpreted in different ways by a variety of cultures.
Alyssa Bantle, intercultural expert and professional business coach a Crown World Mobility, a global business which helps corporations manage global talent, believes companies should be wary of their use in written communication.
She said: “It’s clear that emojis are becoming more popular in everyday life but the advice of intercultural and language experts is for them to be used sparingly and with care in business communication. In fact it would be useful for businesses to have some rules around them.
“Studies have shown that we do not have a universal (even amongst friends) understanding of what EXACTLY many emoji mean. It is very easy for them to be misinterpreted.”
One group of researchers for GroupLens, a research lab at the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Minnesota in the United States, has already published research on the subject.
They found that the ‘tears of joy’ emoji was interpreted positively by some people – and negatively by others. Additionally, a toothy grin on Windows was rated as emotionally positive while the same symbol on Apple looked like more like a grimace to some respondents.
Bantle said: “This research is important because it shows that use of emojis is more complicated than many people believe.
“Only 4.5% of emoji symbols had consistently low variance in their sentiment interpretations.”
Language experts suggest that before using an emoji – whether in an email, IM or text – the writer should ask themselves if there is a way to communicate this feeling or intention using words.
Bantle said: “It is important to ask first and foremost ‘Is this emoji making my message clearer or not?’
“Even the beloved grinning or winking faces are far from universal. Yes, they can quickly communicate the positive or joking tone of a statement. But on the other hand, different cultures read those faces slightly differently – especially in regard to levels of formality and what is appropriate in workplace written communication.”
It is not only the use of emoji to consider, however – the overall formality or informality of a message may be key to the success of inter-cultural communication.
Bantle added: “It’s not good to assume that a more informal tone is appropriate as long as it is polite and friendly. Most cultures have very specific ‘rules” around the role of formality. It indicates respect, professionalism and even business ‘intelligence’ in many cultures. You need to understand the cultural background of the person you are writing to.
“For example, In Zimbabwe there is a notable difference in larger versus smaller companies. In larger companies communication is traditional and formal. Protocol in meetings and emails is considered essential. This is quite different in smaller more entrepreneurial companies where more informal and frequent communication is the norm.
“In Indonesia the written communication style is traditionally formal. For example, Indonesians always use titles like Mr/Ms/Mrs/Dr and the last name when addressing them, even on email. The same is true in many German companies.
“Using first names might seem friendly but to Indonesians could be interpreted as a lack of respect – so emojis can add another level of complication.
“In many Latin American cultures like Mexico, communication is also wordy, indirect and formal. This style shows respect and politeness in those cultures. It is important that writers consider deeper cultural issues when choosing how to get their message across. An emoji may not be appropriate even if it seems innocent and friendly.”
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