Increasingly, business professionals are accepting emojis in company communications, using them for tasks like analytics and overcoming language barriers. This works because emojis are so good at getting feelings across. Now, however, new research reveals the function emoji-based emotion exchange actually serves, suggesting the need for a more mindful approach to establishing and maintaining business relationships.

The studies

Dr. Monica Riordan, experimental psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Catham University in Pittsburgh, conducted two studies using emojis. In the experiments, Riordan examined whether emojis of objects also convey affect. She sent different populations text messages that did or did not contain various emojis of objects. Then she asked the recipients to rate the affective content of the messages, as well as how confident they were in the ratings. The results show that emojis of objects do communicate positive feelings, specifically joy, and that the time and effort involved in using the images can strengthen social relationships.

"With each person, we play a different social role..." Riordan says. "Each social role requires that you act differently, and we perform these acts to remain in the other person's good graces. Emojis help us perform those actions via text."

In other words, the use of object-based emojis serves to confirm the function we serve (or want to serve) with someone else. So for example, one role of a good boss is that of encourager. Using emojis like clapping hands or fireworks pictorially conveys support and confidence, as is appropriate for that role. Similarly, a message like "Let me get back to you" with a brain emoji could support the idea of a boss as an analyzer, decision maker or source of information.

What it means for you

Understanding that emojis of objects communicate what we can or want to do for each other, your best bet for making correspondence more effective is to think about your status with the recipient. How do you think they see you? How should they see you? What role is most important for you to convey given the current situation? Your goal here isn't just to identify the immediate needs of the recipient. It's also to identify how playing particular roles--and your relationship with the recipient overall--will influence outcomes for the business. Within this, really consider the uniqueness of the person getting your message. Cultural differences, background and even gender can influence how people translate specific emojis of objects. Be flexible in the emojis you choose, selecting images you know the recipient won't misinterpret.

Emojis don't just convey feelings. They convey social roles and hierarchies, too. By using emojis of objects thoughtfully, it's possible to reinforce how you want people to see and treat you. Whether you're sending an email, text or chat message, in today's data-saturated environment, that's a powerful communication shortcut.