Why Email Reactions Are Bad

“What if we could make email cooler? Something that people will want to use more.” That was probably the thought behind one of the latest additions to some email clients. “Everyone is on social media all day. Let’s add some “social vibe” to our enterprise email application!” And so, one day, we were suddenly able to “React” to the emails we received. React? That’s right. Just send a single emoji colorfully expressing that we like, love, are surprised, or sad by the email. What can go wrong? 

The idea seems great on paper. “We are helping users interact without wasting a lot of time.” Instead of hitting the reply button and thinking about the response (or remembering how to summon the emoji keyboard), we can now easily access the most popular emojis. We are used to communicating with emojis, so why not use them in our work-related emails as well? I can think of at least two reasons why we shouldn’t. 

First, if all you have to say in response to an email is “Like!” you really don’t have to respond. Here’s the thing: every email sent comes with a price tag — it’s a distraction. Yes, even those reactions end up somewhere in the original sender’s inbox. When we communicate, we have to be sure we are adding value to the conversation, and sending a bunch of shallow reactions rarely adds value (and I’m being generous here). 

Many people expect some response, and an emoji reaction seems better than nothing, but this is part of our communication contract. It is easy to change that norm and decide that we don’t need to show that we agree explicitly if we don’t have anything valuable to add. Reactions, like their social media ancestors, are used to fulfill some need to be part of the conversation, even without contributing to it meaningfully. The problem is that we are already flooded with so many interactions that adding new ones that have little or no value makes our workplace communication more frustrating, not more fun. 

The second reason adding Reactions is not a good idea is even more profound. We are creatures of habit, and emoji-based reactions are familiar; we associate them with social media. The more we use these Reactions in emails, the more we risk turning our inbox into just another social media feed. As you can probably guess, social media and effective communication have nothing in common. 

At work, we communicate to create something together. That is why we need every interaction to be meaningful. Social media, on the other hand, is typically used for entertainment, and an interaction on your feed rarely ends up helping you intentionally create something with other people. The result is that when we interact with social posts, we typically skim through them. We continually scroll until something catches our eye and triggers a reaction or a brief comment. It takes no more than a couple of seconds. If workplace communication goes in that direction, nothing will ever get done. It is a shallow form of communication. In a sense, it is communication for the sake of communication, not for achieving a joint goal. Instead of solving some of the many challenges of workplace communication, this kind of interaction amplifies them. Instead of co-creating, we get a scorecard with the number of Likes we received in the past week. 

Dear email-client vendor, if you really think emojis are cool, you can add them as personal markers, like categories, so people can privately tag the emails they receive. This might be useful for recapping your week or finding older emails without creating a distraction for anyone else. It might introduce some social vibe, but it will be confined to my inbox and not spill over to turn the conversation into a cryptic stream of happy and sad emoji faces.

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