Perils of the emoji

Emoji are now a part of our everyday lives but how and when they are used in communication, both in the workplace and elsewhere, requires care. Just like words themselves, some emoji have connotations and hidden or rapidly changing meanings which have nothing to do with their physical appearance. This makes using them in any type of communication perilous, with the potential to cause offence, misunderstandings or to even land you in court on the receiving end of a prosecution.    

I recently came across the aubergine emoji 🍆 in a workplace blog about healthy eating. A debate ensued amongst members of the internal communications team about whether or not it was acceptable to use it, given its more lewd meaning, and if the author should be asked to remove it. If you don’t know what it represents, other than the purple fruit, I’ll leave it to Metro to explain. 😉

I decided to ask the wider communications community if they thought it was acceptable to ever use the aubergine emoji in a workplace communication. For the majority of the respondents to my Twitter poll it was a resounding no, but around a third thought that it depended on the message and some brave souls thought it was completely fine to do so.

As with most things in communication, context is all, as was demonstrated by the NHS in the launch promotion for their mobile App – thanks to Jude Tipper @judetipper for highlighting this.

This and the other comments on my poll about the use of the aubergine and other emoji in internal and external communications intrigued me, and I decided to explore the issue a little further.

It’s a legal matter

My most surprising discovery was that these seemingly innocuous little digital icons are increasingly the subject of legal action when the communications which contain them are presented as evidence in criminal and other types of cases. For example, in a legal case in Israel a judge awarded over $2000 compensation to a landlord because a potential tenant had indicated with a 😊 in a text message that they were willing to rent a property, later pulling out of the deal. The judge ruled that the smiley signalled an intent to enter into a tenancy agreement and awarded the compensation. Buyer (or renter) beware!

If a legal decision and potential compensation or imprisonment can turn on their use or presence in a communications message I think we need to consider when we use emoji more seriously, or if we should even be using them at all in some types of communication.

Plain English to Middle English

Some respondents to my poll suggested that we shouldn’t be using emoji in workplace communications at all because they prevent people who don’t comprehend what they mean or represent from understanding our messages, and that is potentially a form of exclusion.

I think this is a good point. For years, many of us working in communication roles have been advocates of the principles of the Plain English Campaign and have strived to use language which is accessible and understandable for the majority of our audiences. Indeed, most organisations these days advocate respect for diversity and promote inclusion in the workplace which includes using communication which is accessible and appropriate for everyone. If you have an inclusive language policy in your workplace, does it include the use of emoji? 

If we must use emoji in workplace communications, then I think it’s important that we understand what they mean (or could mean) and what our audience think they mean before we do so. We are careful to use the right words in our communications, so we should be careful about using the right emoji (or no emoji at all).

If we don’t know what a word means we often turn to a dictionary, although this is not always foolproof. A browse beyond the official Oxford English Dictionary is also recommended. Who knew, for example, that the word ‘biscuit’ could have so many alternative meanings? (Warning – some of these alternative meanings may cause offence).

In the course of my research for this blog I discovered that there is an online dictionary of emoji, although it includes a disclaimer that ‘meanings are always changing’. Have a browse through and see what your favourite emoji might really mean (it was certainly an eye opener for me) but use this resource with caution.

Like emoji, the essential components and constructs of our language, are constantly evolving. Here is an example of Middle English from the 14th Century, a prologue to the Canterbury Tales:  

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,

And bathed every veyne in swich licour

Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth

Inspired hath in every holt and heeth

Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne

Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,

And smale foweles maken melodye,

That slepen al the nyght with open ye

(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);

Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,

And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,

To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;

And specially from every shires ende

Of engelond to caunterbury they wende,

The hooly blisful martir for to seke,

It’s virtually incomprehensible to the modern English reader, because of the spelling, grammar and construction let alone what the words themselves might have meant in the 14th Century.

Part of being a professional internal communicator is about keeping your skills and knowledge up to date. This goes beyond the tactics and strategy that underpin what we do, and includes having a working knowledge and understanding of language and its continuing evolution in all its forms.

I don’t think that as internal communicators we can ignore emoji. They are here to stay and are gradually being assimilated into how we communicate in every situation. However, just as we choose the words we use in our messages with care, we should also choose the emoji we use with similar or even greater care.


Example of Middle English sourced from Arizona State University at (accessed 7 March 2020).

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay 

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