Modern Life

Are we speaking the same digital language?

Figuring out the etiquette for sending emails, GIFs, and emojis can be a minefield.

By Stephanie Walden — March 22, 2022

Does this type of exchange at work look familiar to you? Perhaps something you’d send or receive on Slack or Teams instead of email? Does it feel too brief to you? And what about the double ks? Too informal? 

If you feel ambivalent about those questions, you’re not alone. Stephen Connolly, a writer at Interact Software, a company that provides intranet products for enterprises, was recently chatting with a younger colleague about how 20-somethings communicate. Connolly, 41, left the conversation a little bewildered. First off, his Gen Z coworker had explained, his use of email is aggressively formal.

This was news to Connolly.

So is his form of “okay” in his communications. “Apparently, there are multiple ways to write ‘okay,’ from uppercase (‘OK’) to lowercase (‘kk’ or ‘k’) to lowercase and punctuated (‘ok.’),” he says. If you get a text from a Gen Zer that uses that latter form, with a period, you’re in trouble. But “kk” is much more congenial and warm.

Connolly’s experience is just one example of how having a digital conversation can be an exercise in code breaking. Our reliance on an ever-evolving rotation of platforms combined with differing intergenerational communication styles poses a critical question: How do we learn to speak the same digital language?

Four generations, one Slack channel

Thanks to a confluence of factors — the explosion of social platforms like TikTok and others during the pandemic, a near-overnight shift to remote work, and the entry of Gen Z into the workforce — the Venn diagram overlap of internet-speak and workplace banter has expanded in recent years. With four generations now working together — including Gen Z and millennial digital natives who are accustomed to getting their point across in online realms — opportunities for communication misfires abound.

Teams that once relied on in-person meetings and desk drop-bys have largely transitioned to digital channels like Slack and Microsoft Teams. With a lack of face-to-face meetings, eye contact, and body language, what we type has to do a lot more heavy lifting when it comes to communicating our attitudes, subtext, and office mores. Like that period.

“The pandemic has pushed the evolution of workplace communications into an accelerated state because companies are not only transforming, they’re also transforming how they work,” says Allison Hemming, CEO of talent agency The Hired Guns. Data backs this up: In a recent survey, Slack found that more than half of IT decision makers said they think email will be replaced as their organization’s primary communications tool by 2024.

A confusing set of unwritten rules

It seems each communication platform has its own set of best practices — and faux pas. At work, lost-in-translation snafus are high stakes. Something as seemingly innocuous as a misplaced emoji in an email might result in a miffed client or a meeting with HR. 

That meme of a sad-eyed puppy in response to a meeting running late, which may be perfectly appropriate on a team Slack channel where there’s a close-knit vibe, might not be as well received by a client via email. “These new channels can create a new type of friction,” says Hemming.

And should you be using emojis in an email, anyway? The jury is divided. For every article that says yes, there’s one that disagrees and yet another that opines, “Only in three specific cases.” (The least objectionable emoji, according to one study, is the “thumbs-up.”)

With four generations now working together, opportunities for communication misfires abound.

In her book Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection No Matter the Distance, author and communications expert Erica Dhawan writes, “Our word choices, response times, video-meeting styles, email sign-offs, and even our email signatures create impressions that can either enhance or wreck our closest relationships in the workplace.”


As the medium evolves, so does the message

Seemingly gone are the days of watercooler whispers and passive-aggressive notes on the office fridge. The remote or hybrid office of today is a melting pot of GIFs, emojis, and other forms of digital shorthand. Some hardware is adapting to these shifting trends — a new HP Desktop All-in-One features a keyboard that lets users access the emoji keyboard at the touch of a button.

In many ways, communication shifts have led to new opportunities for employees to show off their personalities and creativity, says Cynthia Gordon, a Georgetown University associate professor who studies digital discourse. “We all know that coworker who seems to have the perfect GIF for every conversation,” she says.

The remote or hybrid office of today is a melting pot of GIFs, emojis, and other forms of digital shorthand.

The remote or hybrid office of today is a melting pot of GIFs, emojis, and other forms of digital shorthand.

Sometimes, having the time to think through a reply — or search for that perfect meme — allows someone who may be shy in person to blossom from behind the screen. But at the same time, navigating the nuances of different digital platforms can be perilous. Unlike nonverbal cues and facial expressions, internet acronyms and emojis aren’t intuitive. The human brain has not spent millennia learning how to automatically interpret these signals.

That means there’s a lot of room for ambiguity, explains Gordon. “You might use a smiley face to say, ‘I’m being friendly,’ or ‘This is a soft request.’ But it can be interpreted as having a negative motivation,” she says. Consider the message: “Can you get me that draft by 3 p.m.? :)” The sender may intend the emoticon as polite, but the recipient may read passive-aggressiveness. 


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And it’s not just the language people use, but also patterns of participation in a conversation that make an impression — like tapping a “reacji” in response to something someone posts on Slack.

“We’ve realized the limits of text-based communication, and so we have created other opportunities. We now have things like voice memos and emojis and ‘likes,’’’ says Gordon. “These mechanisms are important — they show we want to be connected, and that we need ways to convey the tone of our message.”

Perceptions and power dynamics

Tone and style in digital communications become extra fraught when factors like racial or gender dynamics and corporate hierarchy are part of the equation. For instance, anecdotal evidence suggests that women, particularly Black women, are often perceived as “unfriendly” if they don’t use exclamation points. (But if they use too many, it’s also a problem.) Gordon, who is White, admits that she struggles with these considerations herself. “When I send emails, I sometimes go back and take out an exclamation point or two… I try to take it down a notch,” she says.

She notes, too, that punctuation, emojis, and tone are often entangled with power dynamics. “The use of these things indicates something about your relationship with the other person,” she says. Emails from students, for instance, tend to display a lot of deference (“Dear Professor”) and hedging language (softeners like “should,” “would,” or “might”).

Meanwhile Black employees and people from other underrepresented communities may find that common colloquialisms are misunderstood or viewed as unprofessional by colleagues who aren’t familiar with them. This can lead to code switching, or changing communication styles to blend in with perceived norms. Constantly analyzing if a message will be taken “the right way” can be time-consuming and emotionally draining.

The onus is on companies and leaders

For the sake of clarity, sometimes it’s worth putting these unwritten rules in, well, writing.

“In the ‘real world,’ we often don’t have to [explicitly state] the rules,” says Gordon. “But the truth is, with social media, Slack, and email, sometimes meta-communicating — communicating about communicating — is necessary.” What this looks like, from outlining best practices in an employee handbook to pinning guidelines to the top of a Slack channel, varies from company to company.

That said, a company-wide communication policy often softens or evolves when it comes down to the team level or one-on-one interactions. In these cases, team leaders may set the tone. “Many people who are low-ranking in an office might err on the side of formality, and follow the lead their [superior] sets,” says Gordon.

In Digital Body Language, Dhawan suggests that in professional communications, people should pause — frequently — and ponder the possible ways their phrasing, or even use of a particular punctuation mark, might be misconstrued.

Employee training for digital body language can help break down silos and build trust, writes Dhawan. “[That], in turn, will lead to enormous efficiencies, as people will spend less time wondering about that period or (lack of) exclamation marks.” Flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to engage in continuous learning are key.

After all, today it may be Slack and Zoom, but tomorrow, we may be “kk-ing” in the metaverse.