Think about the last time you used “LOL” in an email, text or group chat with your co-workers. Were you actually “laughing out loud”? Were you even smiling?
Sure, “LOL” can express actual amusement. But often, it serves as an unnecessary placeholder.
For many women, the use of “LOL” can be “a reflective impulse to soften our message,” said Alexandra Carter, a professor at Columbia Law School, a world-renowned negotiation trainer for the United Nations, and the Wall Street Journal best-selling author of "Ask for More: 10 Questions to Negotiate Anything."
Women are taught to use softeners like “I’m just…” or “I’m sorry” to avoid coming off as “too aggressive or too bitchy or too bossy,” said Carter. She expressed the difficulty of conveying tone in Slack and text, noting there is great temptation to throw in an “LOL” into the conversation simply to signal that you’re a friendly person.
Though there may be times that "LOL" is completely warranted in a message to your co-workers, before your finger strikes the keys, pause and think about what you are actually trying to convey. “If I find myself with the impulse to put 'LOL' or something similar because I’m not quite sure how [this message] is going to be received, that’s a clue to figure out a different way to communicate,” like a phone call or an in-person chat, said Carter.
So does it ever make sense to use “LOL” — a term that was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2011 — in the workplace? Selena Rezvani, a women’s leadership speaker and author of the award-winning book, "Pushback: How Smart Women Ask – And Stand Up – For What They Want,” said yes.
Many use the term “in essence to ‘catch the ball’ someone threw us conversationally, and to throw the ball back. That can be true even if we’re not doubled over, laughing like a hyena,” said Rezvani.
“Using LOL in digital conversations greases the wheels of social contact and can reduce friction. Used here and there, it can show that someone doesn’t just engage in ‘business-speak,’ but they have a human side, and it can signal friendliness,” said Rezvani.
Match the corporate culture
Organizational culture is subtly different in every work environment.
“If you’re in a place where ‘LOL’ seems to be widespread, if there’s a lot of text-speak and no punctuation or no capitalization, ‘LOL’ can be culturally acceptable,” Carter said. Observe the unwritten rules in your organization, “and find that sweet spot where you are bringing yourself to the table and also exhibiting an awareness of communication norms within your team or company.”
Naomi Baron, professor emerita at American University and author of “Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World,” noted that we tend to mirror the communication style of whoever we’re talking to.
In a study of female university students texting other female university students, she discovered that if one person uses “will not” instead of “won’t,” the other will overwhelmingly adopt the same style as a form of politeness. So, if you’re using “LOL” with people who use “LOL” all the time, you’re not undermining yourself. “You’re simply showing an affiliation with that person,” she said.
“One might want to assess their audience,” said Lisa Davidson, Chair of New York University's linguistics department. “Text abbreviations are perfectly communicative in exchanges within a team's Slack group, for example, but it may be less clear whether “LOL” is appropriate to use in an email that most of the company will see, if you aren't sure how everyone will interpret it.”
Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives when you’re not sure if “LOL” is appropriate — or you think you might be using the term a little too much..
Caroline Tagg, a lecturer in Applied Linguistic and English Language at Open University in the United Kingdom, suggested switching “LOL” to an emoji. An “emoji can be seen as more creative and nuanced, because you can select a particular one to convey a particular mood or idea … I don’t think they have quite the bad press that ‘LOL’ tends to get,” she said.
Baron suggested that we should simply think through what we actually want to say to the person we are talking to rather than automatically adding an “LOL.” And Rezvani said we might want to turn our responses into a more personal shoutout to someone you appreciate, like: “Rita, this is next-level hilarious, even for you!” or, “Another gem, Carlos – I needed this today.”
The bottom line, according to communication experts, is that we should be intentional with our use of “LOL.”
In other words, if you use “LOL,” do it because “LOL” is exactly what you meant—and not something you typed because you didn’t bother taking the time to think about what you really wanted to say.
Carter said that in the end, each woman should “use a communication style that allows her to be unapologetically herself.”