Take a minute to look at your Slack and count how many emojis you and your colleagues have used today. If your chats look anything like ours here at Inc.com, then I am going to bet your communications are peppered with smiley faces, thumbs up, and even the odd heart, octopus, or monkey covering its eyes.
That makes sense. More and more collaboration is happening at a distance, meaning all of us are having to tune up our written communication skills. And research shows emojis can help add emotional nuance to texts or emails that would otherwise come across as cold and abrupt.
But while emojis serve a purpose and clearly aren't going anywhere, new research recently published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior suggests professionals should probably be more cautious about using emojis in professional contexts. It turns out men and women often interpret common emojis quite differently, leading to misunderstandings.
Men and women interpret some emojis differently.
For the study, Lara Jones, a psychologist at Wayne State University, and her colleagues recruited nearly 300 college students to weigh in on how often they used emojis, which they were familiar with, and how they interpret common emojis. Unsurprisingly, they found that college kids use emojis a lot, women use them slightly more than men overall, and everyone is more likely to use them when communicating with close friends than with the boss.
So far no surprises. But when the research team compared how men and women perceived the same emoji, things got more interesting. Women, it turns out, tend to interpret neutral or ambiguous facial emojis much more negatively than men.
"A great example is the 'thinking emoji,'" Jones told The Wall Street Journal. "Men see that as slightly positive, women as slightly negative." Other examples of emojis the genders interpret differently include the smiling face with horns and the eyebrows raised face. The study also revealed that men were slightly more likely to use emojis at work than women.
The practical implications
Are these stop-the-presses and completely-stop-using-emojis-at-work kind of findings? Clearly not. The differences are relatively subtle and don't imply in any way that one gender is more "right" than the other when it comes to its interpretation of the monkey or winking emoji. But that doesn't mean there are no practical takeaways according to the study's authors.
Like many other subtle differences in communication preferences between groups, the best response is probably simple awareness. Knowing these differing interpretations and preferences exist helps you better tune your communications to your audience and more rapidly understand and untangle any miscues that do occur.
Jones specifically recommends tuning your emojis to the gender of your recipient (assuming it's not someone you know super well) and avoiding using emojis at all when there is a big power of culture gap between sender and recipient, at least until you get a better sense of the other person's preferences and communication style.