One of the great dangers of email, that staple of modern business life, is the misunderstanding that comes from your witty comment being taken seriously by the dope on the receiving end of your cleverness.  I mean, how could someone fail to understand that I was just being funny?  How dumb can he be?  And yet, that misunderstanding happens all the time.

Beyond cleverness, misunderstandings develop from emails that are too telegraphic, that leave out too much, from emails that go on too long so that they’re not read, and from emails whose supposedly clear instructions somehow get misconstrued, leading to squads of people turning right when they were supposed to turn left, and so on.

We humans are hard-wired to decode each other’s intent – when we’re communicating face-to-face.  All of the advantages of email – it’s easy, free, and you don’t have to be standing there when I type out my brilliant missive to you – also contribute to its flaws.  Without the face-to-face presence, I can’t perform two incredibly important checks on what you’re saying to me or vice-versa:  I can’t easily check for accuracy, and I can’t check for importance.

Face to face we can ask for clarification, say, “did you really mean that?” and otherwise confirm that the order to march off the cliff was exactly that.  I can also, pretty much instantly and effortlessly, get a sense of how important you believe your communication is – because you convey emotional import automatically along with the content.  Your body language signals how much you care.  Your body language also signals highs and lows and other nuances in your communication, so your presence aids in simple comprehension, too.  But the most important thing that face-to-face communication provides is the emotional subtext to your content.

It’s important to realize that first, you can’t help signaling your emotional subtext and second, I can’t help receiving it.

Put that into an email and it disappears, for the most part.  Because I’m not used to conveying my emotions with mere words, lacking Shakespeare’s facility with the language, my language is liable to fall a bit flat.  Or I feel inhibited from adding phrases to clarify my emotional rating of the email, like, “This is really, really, really important to me.”  And in any case, would you take that literally, or sense a bit of irony in that last sentence?  Who knows – and that’s the point.

Lacking the face-to-face body language exchange, email is an impoverished form of communication.

And don’t forget the feedback loop.  Imagine how much it would slow down our email exchanges if you responded with, “Really?  You want me to what?  How important is that really when I’ve got approximately 15,000 other things to do that right now sound more urgent?”  Or the more prosaic, “Did you mean you wanted six eggs on six different days, or one egg each day for six days?”

Language is imprecise and our command of it even more so, and thus email is fraught with danger.

And so wise people have taken to adding all sorts of diacritical marks, abbreviations, and symbols in order to aid in comprehension.  For example:  !!!!!.  The exclamation point to show you’re being friendly.  It’s like adding a chirpy tone.  So lots of emails I get involve sentence after sentence like this! Every single one! As a result, the device starts to lose its effectiveness!

Lol.  Wtf.  Iikwimiwhsis.  (That last obviously means:  If I knew what I meant I would have said it straightaway.)

The other recent trend in email clarification attempts involves emojis.  Originally scorned by serious emailers, they now are gradually finding their way into the semi-polite discourse of business emails.:-)

And yet, according to a recent study, they shouldn’t.  Dr. Ella Glikson and her team conducted a series of experiments on 549 people in 29 countries and found that, while in-person smiling makes you seem more warm and competent, emojis used in business emails have the opposite effect.

And there’s the email bottom line: use emojis – particularly the smiley face – in order to clarify your emotional meaning, or just to be nice, and you’ll appear less warm and competent.

So for now, in spite of the great need for them, emojis appear to be out of bounds for serious emailers.

But I predict that in a few years emojis will become the norm because of the dangers I’ve described.  For now, however, you’ll just have to be clear, detailed, and emotionally transparent.

And I mean that.  Lol – no.

We’ll get the emotions right — and a lot else besides — at our Powerful Public Speaking one-day workshop October 24th in Boston.  Sign up early — spaces are dwindling to a precious few!


  1. I concur! In email, I often find emojis disconcerting, and sometimes wonder if the writer was being sarcastic.

    That was especially true of a former colleague (who was based in another country from me). Our relationship was sometimes strained, and she only seemed to use smileys when things were at a low ebb.

    Like with a fake smile on a human face (or lipstick on a pig, for that matter), smileys on a bitter message make it more bitter – not “more better”!

  2. I use emojis often in my communication, mostly the smile 🙂 and the wink 😉 to communicate happiness, quirkiness or sometimes sarcastic-ness. Occasionally, I’ll use a sad face or a sad wink. To me, it re-enforces a particular feeling/mood that I actually have when writing to my subject. I hope that this mood is evident through the entire communication (the particular email response or message in this case)

    If you’re using smiles or winks to hide or coverup an otherwise negative message, the user will see or feel right through that.

    But at the same time, many of my subjects know me either from in-person, or phone calls. I find that the better I know someone, and vice versa, the more I’ll use them. I think that’s natural. But I’ll also use them often in public or semi-public groups (such as facebook groups) where I feel welcomed or at par with the other users.

    Also, I’m known to write a lot – in regards to lengthy emails, responses, etc. (At least that’s what I’ve been told 😉 ) [See, I used one right there cuz who doesn’t wink when they’re telling how their wife really feels about them.] Anyway, I do write alot. I tend to write how I speak which simply puts more words / sentences on paper. I feel that it’s this style that helps communicate the overall feel and emotion, which helps bolster the user of Emojis.

    Does that make sense?

    However, the science and studies highlight a side that I have never explored.

    Fascinating stuff for sure!

    1. Thanks, Blake — you’re clearly an early adopter! I think the world will come around to widespread emoji use, if only because their use did begin in the younger half of the population. It will gradually spread! But for now, just be aware that serious business people find them *ahem!* a bit too youthful…..

  3. I use ” 🙂 ” as a reply to people when our exchanges are winding down, to let them know (1) I saw their latest, and (2) they can get on with their lives. When I’m on the receiving end of that, I love the reassurance (1) they saw my latest, and (2) I can get on with my life.

    Until I read this post, Nick, I thought I was being helpful by adding the occasional smiley face to the rest of an exchange. Now it feels bossy: “This is where you smile.” It also feels like I’m being lazy, because if I’d expressed myself more precisely you wouldn’t need that prompt.

    Suddenly it occurs to me there isn’t a single emoji in any of the books I’ve written. Had there been, I don’t think I could expect anyone to take me seriously.

    1. Maureen, bossy? Never! But you’re right about books. No emojis there. Last bastion of serious thinking. But they’ll give way, too, I predict!

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