Using emojis in work emails, messages makes people look less ‘powerful’

TEL AVIV — Emojis, GIFs, and other picture messages may be cute and fun, but if you want people to take you seriously at work, new research suggests you should leave them at home. Scientists from Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management find employees who use pictures and emojis over words in their communications appear less powerful to others than their co-workers who use good old-fashioned words.

It doesn’t matter if the employee sending the emoji is a CEO, office manager, entry-level worker, or an intern on their first day. If they use pictures in their e-mails, Zoom profiles, or any other medium that their colleagues see, the study finds co-workers see them as weaker and less authoritative.

The research team came to these conclusions by analyzing responses from participants in the U.S. after viewing verbal vs. pictorial messages across a variety of different contexts. All in all, the results were quite clear. Across all scenarios, the group attributed more power to people who chose words over images.

“Today we are all accustomed to communicating with pictures, and the social networks make it both easy and fun. Our findings, however, raise a red flag: in some situations, especially in a work or business environment, this practice may be costly, because it signals low power. Our advice: think twice before sending a picture or emoji to people in your organization, or in any other context in which you wish to be perceived as powerful,” study authors explain in a media release.

Letters over logos

During the experiment, each participant examined numerous everyday scenarios. For example, one experiment asked volunteers to imagine visiting a grocery store and seeing another person wearing a Boston Red Sox t-shirt. Half of the group saw a t-shirt with the words “RED SOX” on it, while the other portion saw the baseball team’s logo instead. Interestingly, subjects seeing the verbal logo t-shirt rated the wearer as more powerful than those wearing the pictorial logo.

Additional experiments produced similar results. Another scenario instructed participants to imagine themselves attending a corporate retreat for a company called “Lotus.”

Now, while researchers told half the group a female employee chose a t-shirt with the verbal logo “LOTUS,” they told the other half that worker chose a visual logo — a simple picture of a lotus flower. Sure enough, participants rated the woman as more powerful for choosing the verbal LOTUS logo.

Zoom video calls and meetings have become a part of daily post-pandemic life for millions. So, researchers made sure to consider the effect of pictures versus words across video call scenarios. Participants had to select one of two potential partners to represent them in a game that emphasizes high social power. Importantly, one of those potential partners represented themselves with a pictorial ZOOM profile, while the other used a verbal profile. Sixty-two percent of participants chose the co-participant who used a verbal profile.

Signaling power through words

In summation, study authors conclude that employees who use words instead of images to “signal power” are more likely to receive promotions at work.

“Why do pictures signal that a sender is low power? Research shows that visual messages are often interpreted as a signal for desire for social proximity. A separate body of research shows that less powerful people desire social proximity more than powerful people do. Consequently, signaling that you’d like social proximity by using pictures is essentially signaling you’re less powerful,” study co-author Dr. Elinor Amit explains.

“It must be noted that such signaling is usually irrelevant in close relationships, as in communications between family members. However, in many arenas of our lives, especially at work or in business, power relations prevail, and we should be aware of the impression our messages make on their recipients. Our findings raise a red flag: when you want to signal power think twice before sending an emoji or a picture,” the researcher concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.

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