But why are people using emoticons or emoji in the workplace? The answer is that they’re useful. Lauren Collister, a socio-linguist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies the interaction of language and society, argues that whether it be emoticons or emoji—both are doing their part in revolutionizing language. In emails, Collister says that emoticons and emoji act as discourse particles—a word that has no semantic meaning but adds intention to a statement.
“People tend to use emoticons when there's some kind of what linguists call a face threat—something kind of awkward or potentially offensive, or somebody could take something the wrong way,” explains Collister. “So people will use emoticons or emoji in these instances to just add that little bit of extra inflection or discourse particle information at work too because it's a useful way to communicate.”
It’s for this reason that the happy-face emoji dominates. As Will Schwalbe, co-author with David Shipley of the classic email etiquette book Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better (sometimes regarded as the “Strunk and White of email”), explains, “The biggest problem about all electronic communication is that it's toneless. In the absence of tone, people read negative tone into it.”
“Whether you're using the exclamation mark, which we called the ‘ur emoticon’, or emoticons, or emoji, they all serve the same incredibly valuable purpose which is they take this very dull, flat, affectless form of communication and they make it cheerful, friendly, they bring a smile … They kick it up a notch,” says Schwalbe.
A Scandinavian study on email in the workplace found exactly that: Emoticons in the workplace were not used to convey emotion, but rather to signal how the information in the email should be interpreted. They found three primary uses: to express positive vibes, to mark jokes, and lastly to either strengthen or soften statements that could be misread as reprimanding. An American study found that on that last point, smiley faces in email can reduce negative interpretations.
Along with the usefulness of emoticons and emoji in clarifying tone in emails, another partial explanation for the rise of emoji at work is that digital work communication now incorporates casual communication as well. “In the past email was seen as more formal just in general—because it's written and it's kind of like a letter,” says Collister. “But I think that's changing with how we use email for everything these days.”
Beyond email, the growing popularity of office collaboration and communication tools like Slack are increasingly taking casual work interactions online. “Casual communication is a perfectly valid type of office communication that's always existed,” says Schwalbe. In the past, these interactions—whether it’s to tell a joke or ask someone how their weekend was—were reserved for in-person or on the phone. Nowadays, there’s a Slack channel for that—whether it’s Game of Thrones fans or baby photos. This moving of casual office communication online—and therefore into text—has contributed to people’s comfort level of using emoticons and emoji with their co-workers.