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Why you should think twice before sending that emoji

Posted by Kanika Sinha

September 3, 2021    |     3-minute read (738 words)

A generational divide is brewing over how emojis are used and interpreted. Misunderstandings over what an emoji symbolizes are causing confusion in digital communications.

Depending on which generation they belong to, people tend to attach different meanings to the digital icons and use them to connote subtle nuances. The contrast can be so stark that one generation’s innocuous-seeming emoji is perceived as insulting by another.

Generational differences

Millennials and members of Generation X, born from 1981-1996 or 1965-1980 respectively, generally view emojis literally and without innuendo. They use emojis to convey what the little images always did, in a straightforward manner.

Members of these groups usually consider emojis to be an alternative form of communication that conveys nonverbal cues. They use them to make texts friendlier and more relatable. 

But their younger Gen Z cohort, comprising those born between 1997 and 2012, does not interpret the symbols in such a simple manner. Their use of emojis ascribes more meaning to the digital icons, such as to add irony or a touch of weirdness.

As emojis are a norm in texts and other online messaging, the younger generation’s baffling use of emojis when communicating with older individuals makes these interactions more chaotic and prone to misunderstanding.

Examples of how interpretations of emojis may vary

A smiling emoji long used to express any number of positive sentiments by people over around age 30 has an opposite connotation for members of Generation Z. It is deemed an unwelcome intrusion and interpreted as patronizing or passive-aggressive by most teenagers and young adults.

The cranium emoji, or the skull and crossbones, means danger or death to many adults. But Gen Z interprets it as meaning something extremely humorous, as in laughing extremely hard. Meanwhile, millennials consider a crying, laughing face to be humorous.

Baffled already? There’s more!

The workplace chasm

Although Gen X never put much emphasis on the use of emojis, particularly at work, even they can now be found adding them to chats and emails as the pandemic has forced more teams to work remotely. But heavier use of emojis in the workplace has precipitated more misunderstandings.

For instance, a Gen Z intern was taken aback when her co-workers on her first day at a Brooklyn, N.Y., digital-media firm welcomed her with a bright smiling emoji. She interpreted the emoji as conveying a kind of side-eye smile and attached a sarcastic meaning to the image, but her co-workers belong to a generation that uses the emoji for its literal meaning. 

The family communication disconnect

The pandemic also made families’ text chains more active, with Gen X parents and Gen Z kids often feeling disconnected in their digital interactions.

For instance, a 21-year-old Michigan college graduate was probed by her Gen X parent when he celebrated his younger brother’s test scores with a crown emoji. As he was forced to explain to his mother, the crown signifies a king and denotes positivity. Sharing it meant his brother was doing well. His 53-year-old mother prefers phone calls to eliminate confusion rather than potentially misinterpret the new emoji language of digital natives.

Another example is that of a teenage girl who found her parents’ emoji selections humorously off base as they prefer sticking to the original meaning of digital icons. An upset emoji of a frowning face that reads frustrated for her father has a more sexual undertone for her Gen Z peers.

The bemusing intergenerational friendship 

The intergenerational divide in the use of emojis and the undertones they convey has not only perplexed Gen X. Even the youngest of millennials can be found Googling what an emoji means before adding one to their communication.

A millennial attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area thought that being a part of the generation that was first blessed with the language of emojis meant she always had her finger on the pulse of how people communicate online. But her discussion with a Gen Z friend made her feel the need to brush up on her emoji comprehension.

For her younger friend, the sender of a cowboy emoji (a grinning face wearing a hat) has put on a front, smiling appearance on the outside while dying on the inside; for millennials the cowboy signifies quirky, giggly happiness. 

Takeaway: Like language, emojis have evolved. Every generation has adapted its own interpretations that are different from previous ones, and this is unlikely to change.

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