When emojis lead to better communication

I use emojis way more in work contexts than I do in my personal life, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it makes me a more effective communicator and improves my ability to do my job.

When I first started working at Google 10 years ago, I noticed that many of the more respected product managers at the company used just a ton of smiley faces in their e-mails, and in my mind, I thought “what the hell is going on here?” And over the past decade, I didn’t necessarily internalize this as an intentional strategic tactic, but I have noticed that my emoji usage (at least smileys) at work has increased dramatically.

So, in true analytical PM/Quoran fashion, I’m going to try to deconstruct why I think it’s actually pretty effective for communicating at work. I don’t know that this is applicable to all industries, but at least applies for collaborative roles in the tech industry.

First, extremely direct communications are heavily valued at companies like Quora.

If you’re not used to this, it can be almost shocking at first because you may not understand why everyone seems so critical or curt all the time. This is a natural reaction because in social contexts, there’s rarely need for you and your friends to rigorously and efficiently execute towards meaningful goals with material consequences, so there just isn’t much incentive to give your friends direct feedback. If anything, leisurely time with friends is the complete opposite of that, by design. Work is obviously very different, and the more everyone can embrace feedback that fuels personal growth, the more effective teams will become.

Emojis play a role in that because they help set the tone in written communications and allow the message to land without making it seem so dire or awkward.

As an extremely contrived example, let’s say someone drops the ball on a task and it delays the team by a few days, and in e-mail, I say “well don’t f#@%ing forget next time” (tbc, I don’t e-mail like this). The other person doesn’t know if I’m just teasing playfully or if I’m actually furious. Just adding a ‘:)’ at the end makes it clear it’s the former, but still lets them know that the mistake did affect other people.

Second, it’s amazing to work at a company with cultural diversity, and the different cultural perspectives add a lot of value to everyday decision-making, but it also makes it much easier for people to misinterpret things in written text.

The tech industry, in particular, has a lot of people who grew up in different countries / cultures, so your dry San Francisco hipster sarcasm often won’t quite land the way you think it will. Similar to the above point, emojis help in this context too because a smiley is universal, and so it helps reduce the variance in how your words can be interpreted. If you’ve ever worked with people on the opposite side of the world before, you know how bad a simple e-mail misunderstanding can be when it just simmers there for a whole day before it’s cleared up.

Third and most important, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my career is that you need to reduce friction in communication if you want accurate information to flow freely.

If communication feels too formal or buttoned up, then people will be hesitant to say things, and the things they say will be overly-managed, which means you’ll both get less information and more biased information, which means you’ll make worse decisions. Think about it — you can tell your best friend anything in an unfiltered way, but you won’t necessarily speak as freely with your boss’ boss. I actually think this is a big part of why Slack is so much more effective than e-mail — because it makes work collaboration feel like a circa 1998 AIM conversation.

This might all sound somewhat trivial, but the truth (at least IMO) is that at most tech companies, the bottleneck to impact typically isn’t technical breakthrough or innovation, it’s the ability for people to communicate and work well together, so they can make good decisions and have their efforts compound, and little things like this can add up to a lot.

This column first appeared at Quora.

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