More than words
As humans, we need real interaction to bond and build trust. Today, we also rely on the digital extension of our relationships to keep the conversation flowing. In an age in which economies and friendships span oceans and time zones, we certainly need some sort of virtuality.
Audio and video have become common ways of interacting with each other already. Yet written communication still remains the predominant way of keeping in touch across geographies and cultures.
According to Albert Mehrabian, in an ambiguous situation,
(…) words account for 7%, tone of voice accounts for 38%, and body language accounts for 55% (…)“
Ambiguous in this context means that in the perception of the recipient, the spoken words and the tone/gestures do not match.
Mehrabian’s theory might not be a general rule of thumb for all communication scenarios out there. However, written communication has the required level of ambiguity to make the rule applicable. In particular, if the communicators come from different cultures and therefore don’t share the same mother tongue.
To miss out on a nuance in tone can completely change the meaning of a sentence. The lack of a common cultural background might lead to misinterpretations on an even bigger scale. Even if people speak the same basic language (e.g. English), the meaning of a certain expression might be fundamentally different from the spoken word as shown by the Independent.co.uk in 2015.
I can’t see your eyes, so I don’t know what you’re saying
Crime shows have taught us how agents identify liars by their facial expressions and gestures. In modern coaching, techniques like “mimic resonance” receive a lot of attention because they can help to overcome the “non-verbal” barrier for understanding each other.
But what happens if resonating on the other person’s mimics or gestures isn’t an option?
Everyone has been in a situation in which an Email or a text message has caused confusion, slight irritation or outright fury. In the same way, everyone has experienced the awkwardness of realising that the whole hoo-ha was caused by a misinterpretation or wrong assumption.
If we can’t look each other in the eye in the quest for the word’s real meaning, we need to find other ways to convey feeling or intent.
Emoticons in business are unprofessional – but what of emotion?
Research and experts can be found on both ends of the spectrum. Statements such as:
(…) smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence. Perceptions of low competence in turn undermined information sharing. (…)
(Source: “The dark side of a smiley” (2017) on sagepub.vom)
live next to charts like this one:
Leading reasons for using Emojis according to U.S. internet users as of August 2015
(Source: statista 2015)
Leaving everything to the recipient’s interpretation probably isn’t the right way to go about it. Plastering digital messages with LOLing yellow faces and other emotional hints might not help much either. The middle ground between “professional” and “warm and cuddly” probably lies in the art of using emoticons (or emojis) in moderation.
We can think of it like company team building events: a drink can facilitate the building of new relationships, too many drinks can destroy the same relationships forever.
Another factor that influences the perception of emoticons in business communications is “protocol” or “social conditioning”. A study from the University of Missouri-St. Louis concluded,
(…) In a task-oriented context, where impersonal, cold, and unsociable features of computer-mediated communication are strongly encouraged in order to build credibility or professionalism, using emoticons in e-mail might create a positive expectancy violation by being friendly, emotional, and personal. (…)
If we deny the importance of emotions and the human touch in business relationships, we condition people to perceive them the wrong way: as unprofessional.
So instead of banning emotion and emoticons from written business communication, we might want to teach people the appropriate use and expression of emotion.
We live in a world in which work life balance and well-being play a bigger role than ever. Therefore bringing some human touch to business communications is surely more appropriate than trying to stick rigidly to the “fun is fun and work is work” paradigm of the old days.
Our take on emojis and reactions at Fleep
From day one at Fleep we were in agreement that conveying emotion is essential in digital messaging. That’s why we have our own little set of Fleep-style, hand drawn emoticons that we believe work across cultures.
Just recently we introduced emoji based reactions to give our users even more freedom in expressing their opinion or feeling on a topic with a simple click.
Since a reaction can be much more than just a like or dislike, we even decided to offer a broader spectrum of “emotion”. With the entire set of emojis that are established across almost all digital messaging tools. Fleep users can now be more versatile in feedback with a one-click statement on a team member’s message.
About the author
Philipp is a business coach and consultant who helps teams to find the “True North” for their digitalisation programs & projects. He works with structured discovery, design methods & engaging workshops, drawing on his cross-industry experience in internal & external digitalisation along the way. Find him on digital-sherpa.me and Twitter!