They say a picture’s worth a thousand words: emojis simplify communication and make chatting with friends more fun. But the approximately 3,600 emojis available in the Unicode standard have long since made their way into the world of work as well. A study by messaging service Slack and language learning provider Duolingo shows that 58% of employees surveyed globally feel that messages are incomplete without emojis.
But Unicode is not universal. While the symbol set is standardized worldwide, the meaning of those symbols isn’t. This is particularly important to understand in a business context, where clear communication is one of the keys to success. We’ll show you what you need to keep in mind when communicating internationally.
Emojis for greater efficiency
Once emojis are implemented as part of the corporate language, they can increase the efficiency of a company’s communication. Emojis can replace lengthy follow-up messages and minimize unnecessary emails, for example. 58% of survey respondents say that emojis help them to communicate greater nuance with fewer words. And 54% believe that emojis speed up communication. Both factors are important not only when communicating with international teams, but also when interacting with business partners and customers, whether in emails or on social media.
According to the study, 67% of respondents feel closer and more connected to their communication partner if the person they send an emoji to understands it. The problem? Some emojis are fundamentally ambiguous. And others can be interpreted differently depending on your country or cultural background. Some emojis are even understood differently by people within the same country.
There are two main reasons for this:
1. Subcultures and different generations can develop different linguistic and pictorial codes.
2. Not every culture understands symbolism in the same way.
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Beware of fruit
In the US and some European countries, the eggplant emoji stands in for the male sex organ. In Japan, they say that if you dream of eggplant on the first night of the new year, good luck is coming your way. So is an eggplant emoji ever just an eggplant? At work, it’s best to apply the presumption of innocence.
In many countries, the peach emoji is used to flirt – or simply to stand in for a butt. Things are different in Korea: 71% of respondents simply saw this icon as an actual peach. This calls for caution, especially at work.
Put your hands up
Does the clapping hands emoji mean applause? Not necessarily. Depending on the context and other nearby emojis, it may also mean sarcastic clapping, as it does in Germany. Still, it could be worse – if you use this emoji in a message in China, you might be suggesting a sex act.
Similarly, in many countries, a thumbs-up is a positive sign – you’re signaling approval or giving the go-ahead. Not so in the Middle East, West Africa or Australia: here, the symbol has a derogatory meaning and is considered obscene. And there is even some disagreement within each country – probably because of the positive western meaning, which has spread widely through international media. Be prepared for misunderstandings, even if you’re aware of which culture your correspondent comes from.
In Europe, this emoji is an “OK” sign. In Argentina, on the other hand, it is used to order a small coffee. In Brazil and Turkey, it’s an insult – equivalent to a middle finger in the US.
The waving hand? It’s easy to understand. Or is it? We use it to say “hello” or “bye”. In China, too, it means “goodbye” – but for good. The waving hand emoji is a way to tell someone that you don’t want to be friends with them anymore.
Music fans might understand this symbol to mean “You rock”. But in US sign language, it means “I love you.” There are worse double meanings. Just beware of using it in Italy, where the “horns” imply that your conversation partner is a cuckold.
Funny? Yeah, but…
The slightly smiling emoji is definitely ambiguous. Does it mean you’re happy – or in a bit of a bad mood? Not all cultures perceive it as cheerful. In China, it indicates resentment, irony or a lack of trust – a hint that, in Asia, the eyes tell us much more about someone’s state of mind than the mouth. But even in the US, this emoji is increasingly used to symbolize irritation or distrust. Ultimately, the easiest way to decode what your conversation partner means by it is to look at the other emojis and text they’ve combined it with.
In Europe and the US, the snorting emoji is synonymous with anger or a bad mood. In Japan, it’s an expression of triumph.
Better safe than 🙇
For emails and chats with international business partners, or for social media posts that will be published in several countries, it’s worth taking a look at our checklist before hitting “Send”. Since it’s not always clear how people in a given country will react to a particular emoji, only use ambiguous symbols in combination with clearly defined ones, or supplement them with words. For example, the thumbs-up emoji combined with “nice work!” If you keep this tip in mind, you can even use the eggplant emoji without fear: for example, “Can you put some 🍆 on the shopping list?”
If you’re still struggling to get the picture, drop us a line. We’ll happily help you with all your international communication queries. 👍?
Cover image via Envato Elements