Are Emojis the New Email Etiquette?

Key Takeaways

  • 45.7% of employees felt comfortable using emojis when communicating with their boss.
  • The “folded hands” emoji (🙏) was the most misunderstood emoji at work.
  • The “thumbs up” emoji (👍) was thought to be the most acceptable in the workplace, while the “face blowing a kiss” emoji (😘) was seen as least appropriate.

Not all modes of communication are responded to equally in a professional environment. To explore workplace communication, 68 sample emails were drafted and each received feedback from 200 respondents. These drafts were written for a variety of scenarios, containing different emojis, tones, and characteristics. Based on how these emails ranked in terms of their different communication elements, we were then able to report on perceptions of professionalism and effectiveness.

With over 3,500 emojis in existence, we also surveyed 1,011 U.S. employees to further examine their role in workplace communication. Are they appropriate? Which are the most and least accepted? How well are they universally understood by different generations? Keep reading for tips on how to effectively communicate in your workplace.

Appropriate? Or Not?

Is emoji usage considered appropriate in an office setting? Certain emojis may be more widely accepted than others. But the short answer is yes, depending on company culture.

Emoji Key 

  • 😂 Face with tears of joy
  • ❤️ Red heart
  • 😍 Smiling face with heart eyes
  • 🤣 Rolling on floor laughing
  • 😊 Smiling face with smiling eyes
  • 🙏 Folded hands
  • 💕 Two hearts 
  • 😭 Loudly crying face 
  • 😘 Face blowing a kiss 
  • 👍 Thumbs up 

Three in 4 respondents believed that using emojis has improved their communication in the workplace. The most accepted emoji at 71% was “thumbs up,” which signifies approval. The least accepted emoji in the workplace was “face blowing a kiss” at 22.1%, probably because it has romantic implications.

Just under half (45.7%) of our respondents even felt comfortable using emojis when communicating with their bosses. Different generations, however, seemed to have different opinions. One in 5 Gen Zers thought that the “face with tears of joy” emoji was the most acceptable for use in the workplace. Meanwhile, Gen Xers and baby boomers had higher percentages of disapproval for certain emojis (i.e., “folded hands” and “smiling face with smiling eyes”) than their younger counterparts. 

Older generations were more likely to misunderstand emoji use, and 22% of employees over 45 have received an emoji they did not understand. The propriety of using emojis in the workplace relies on the reader being able to understand the intended meaning. Keep reading to learn more about the most misunderstood emojis.

Email Etiquette  

Upon reviewing one randomly selected email out of 68 samples, respondents were asked to choose up to three adjectives that best described the specific email they received. First, let us look at how these emails were rated in general. Then, we’ll take a deeper dive into perceptions of their individual characteristics.

We've featured a sample of the emails featured in this study below  – click an email to read it in its entirety.

Overall, the top five adjectives used to describe these sample emails were professional (19%), formal (14.8%), friendly (12.4%), effective (10.4%), and personal (6.4%). All of the above are positive attributes for a business setting. Mastering one’s email tone can lead to greater trust and understanding between colleagues. Other, less appropriate adjectives given as possible descriptors in our survey included rude, aggressive, unprofessional, and childish.

The first email characteristics assessed were spelling and paragraph style. Emails with spelling mistakes were mostly considered friendly at 17.9%. But depending on how flagrant the mistakes were, they could also seem informal (14.9%) or unprofessional (10.7%). Paragraphs included within an email’s body made it more professional (14.7%), while the absence of paragraphs was considered unprofessional (19%). Emails without paragraphs could be considered more appropriate if the tone of the communication was meant to be either friendly or approachable.

Inbox Investigation Infographic


Next, we evaluated the perceptions surrounding an email’s greetings. A lack of subject line was viewed as unprofessional (19.5%) and even rude (17.3%). Not only that – without a subject line the reader has no idea as to the content they are about to open, potentially leading to unread emails, especially if the sender is not recognized. Therefore, a clear subject line is essential.

Ironically, emails without a salutation or closing in the copy were considered friendly (16.7%) though informal (15.9%). The same was thought for the inclusion of emojis, with 19% of respondents ranking these emails as friendly, and 13.8% ranking them as informal. Depending on the age of the recipient and company culture, some found emojis to be unprofessional (9.2%). However, it was almost equally as likely for an emoji to make an email more personal (9.1%).

The last of the email characteristics we reviewed was signatures or a lack thereof. Professional signatures contain more than just a name. Additional elements in signatures may include the sender’s title, department, phone number, company name, and company address. Like its namesake, a professional signature made an email more professional (20.5%) and was considered formal (16.8%). Emails with a signature that included the sender’s first name only were deemed more informal (20.4%) and personal (19.7%), while emails without any signature at all were considered unprofessional (18.5%).

Emoji Misconceptions

Do you really know what each emoji means? Respondents were asked to correctly identify the meaning of 10 commonly used emojis included in the key above. They were also asked which emojis they believed to be the most misunderstood.

Out of the 10 different emojis listed, only two – “face with tears of joy’” and “loudly crying face” – were properly identified by over 75% of respondents. One emoji, however, was correctly identified by only 44%. The “folded hands” emoji was shown by our data to be the least understood despite not being perceived that way by our respondents. Over half of survey takers believed this emoji signified prayer instead of its correct meaning, thank you. Some even thought it meant to clap your hands.

Although the “loudly crying face” emoji was ranked No. 1 for potentially being misunderstood, it was almost universally recognized (76%) as representing overwhelming sadness. Perceptions of which emojis were the least understood varied again based on generation. One in 4 Gen Xers and 1 in 5 millennials believed that the “loudly crying face” emoji was the most misunderstood. To Gen Zers, “face with tears of joy” was the most misunderstood (18%), while baby boomers saw “folded hands” as the most problematic (16.9%).

To ensure workplace communication is understood, it is important that you know your audience. Gen X or baby boomer employees were the most likely to misunderstand an emoji’s intended meaning, so it is recommended to stick with basic ones and provide context when emailing them. This gives the reader additional tools to understand and helps the message not to be perceived as rude or curt.

Professional Communication With Emojis  

Emojis have become acceptable even in workplace email etiquette. When using them, just be sure they are appropriate and easily understood within the context. In addition to the occasional emoji, professional and effective emails should include subject lines, proper grammar, greetings, paragraphs, and signatures.

Now that you know more about communication in the workplace, make sure you keep your mind sharp at home as well. Crosswords are a great way to achieve this, and the next time you’re stuck on a puzzle, we are here to help at

Methodology and Limitations 

This study was conducted in August 2021 and uses data from a survey of 1,011 employees located in the U.S. Survey respondents were presented with a series of questions, including attention-check and disqualification questions. 54.6% of respondents identified as men, while 45.4% identified as women. Respondents ranged in age from 19 to 71 with an average age of 36.9. 22.6% of respondents were Gen Zers, 29.2% were millennials, 27.1% identified as Gen Xers, and 21.1% reported as baby boomers. Participants incorrectly answering any attention-check question had their answers disqualified. This study has a 3% margin of error on a 95% confidence interval.

Additionally, this study also used data from an Amazon MTurk image classification task, in which 13,600 respondents were shown one sample email each, which they then rated. These sample emails were drafted to represent communication found in the workplace and were reviewed by employees on different levels to ensure their accuracy. These basic outlines were then adapted to include spelling mistakes, emojis, and different tones, in order to find out how these small changes affect our perception of workplace communications. 

Please note that survey responses are self-reported and are subject to issues, such as exaggeration, recency bias, and telescoping.

Fair Use Statement 

Feeling like you gained knowledge about communication within a professional environment? Go ahead and share with a friend or colleague – with or without an emoji. All we ask is that you do so for noncommercial purposes and give us credit by linking back to this page.

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