It’s hard to imagine Angela Merkel—chancellor of Germany and global champion of democracy—punctuating her emails and texts with emoji. But in what’s certainly among the most joyful news of the week, Politico reports that Merkel’s favorite emoji is the 😊 smiley face.
The German politician and side-eye virtuoso revealed her fondness for the smiley-face emoji in a conversation about global affairs with four YouTube personalities, one of her first campaign events before Germany’s election in September. She added, “When things go right, I even add a little heart.”
It’s heartwarming to imagine Merkel encouraging her colleagues and fellow world leaders with ❤️ and 😊 now and then. But it’s also surprising—because emoji are often associated with a certain lack of seriousness.
A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science shows that people who use the smiley-face emoji at work are perceived as less competent. (The same study found that when emails include a smiley face, participants were more likely to assume the author was a woman.) It’s possible that emoji are looked down upon precisely because they’re associated with femininity. After all, emoji and exclamation points are another form of emotional labor—the digital version of the smiles and nods that women are conditioned to employ from childhood, in order to comfort those around us.
But Merkel offers proof that you can be a well-respected leader and throw in a 😎 or 😁 every once in a while. After all, research has also repeatedly backed the old adage that “people leave managers, not companies.” Feeling under-appreciated or disrespected is a leading reason why employees quit their jobs. Assuming you’ve proven your effectiveness as a leader in the big ways that matter—creating a happy, productive, and efficient team—the occasional heart can be a small way to emphasize your enthusiasm for your colleagues’ work.
Of course, emoji aren’t a substitute for the explicit, constructive praise that’s essential to being a supportive manager, and it’s certainly possible to over-use them. But Merkel’s revelation should come as a relief for anyone who’s worried that their emoji usage might hurt their workplace reputation. If one of the most well-respected, successful politicians in the world can send a 😊, the rest of us can too.