Sending Smiley Emojis? They Now Mean Different Things to Different People
Gen Z has adopted new meanings, while older people stick with tradition. The result is a lot of confusing interactions.
By Aiyana IshmaelAug. 9, 2021 11:27 am ET
A smiley face isn’t always just a smiley face. Behind the yellow, wide-eyed emoji’s grin lurks an intergenerational minefield.
The ubiquitous emoji means happy, good job or any number of other positive sentiments to most people over about age 30. But for many teens and 20-somethings, a smiley face popping up in a text or email is seen as patronizing or passive-aggressive.
Hafeezat Bishi, 21, started an internship at a Brooklyn digital media firm and was taken aback when co-workers greeted her with a bright smiley face. For Ms. Bishi, the welcome didn’t seem warm but dismissive. She sees the image as conveying a kind of side-eye smile, not a genuine one.
“I had to remember they are older, because I use it sarcastically,” Ms. Bishi said of her new co-workers. “There are so many emojis, and Gen Z can never take things in a simple manner.”
The communication confusion doesn’t end with the smiley face: People of different ages take different meanings from lots of the little drawings that substitute for words in so many texts and emails.
The rise of emoji use at work, such as between remote teams during the pandemic, has created more misunderstanding than ever, said Erica Dhawan, the author of “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.”
People over 30 generally use emojis to convey what the images always did, she said, while younger “digital natives” might ascribe sarcastic meanings to them, or use them as shorthand for an entirely different thought.
The skull and crossbones means death or hazard to many adults. Many younger people say that to them it signifies laughing extremely hard—as in “I’m laughing so hard, I’m dying.”
Since graduating from the University of Michigan in 2020, Ranganath Kathawate, 21, has spent a lot of time texting with his mom and younger brother. As their pandemic text chains got more active, he says, a disconnect soon was evident.
“Why did you send the crown emoji when your brother sent his test scores?” he says his Gen X mother wanted to know. He explained that since the crown signifies a king, which is positive, it meant his brother was doing well.
His mother, Gayatri Kathawate, 53, said that emojis as used by her sons’ generation are a whole new language and one she misinterprets all the time.
Ms. Kathawate said she is more likely to just pick up the phone, which cuts down on confusion. “But the emojis are like, ‘Huh? What does that mean?’ ”
Rachel Eliza, 19, said she spends a lot of time explaining to her parents why their emoji selections, to her, are humorously off-base.
Take the upset emoji of a frowning face. It is defined by online dictionaries as “frustrated,” and she said that’s how her father uses it. But it reads more sexual for Gen Z. It’s almost like a pained sigh because somebody is so attractive, she said.
Ms. Eliza said her father insists on using the emoji its original way because he thinks that no one sees the “dirty” meaning except her and her brothers. “He thought we were just trying to mess with him. Now he uses it just to mess with us,” she said. Her father couldn’t be reached for comment.
Hailey Francisco, 18, says that during her sophomore cheerleading season at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Wash., she and her teammates always received a cheerful smiley face at the end of texts from their coach, Sara Anderson.
“It wasn’t until the whole team was at a basketball game together, someone told her that the smiley seemed passive-aggressive” to them, Ms. Francisco said. “Coach Anderson was shocked.”
Ms. Anderson, 31, confirms that she sent basic smiley emojis for months. She said the cheerleaders would sometimes respond with a heart-eyes emoji or the red heart.
Her intention was to add lightness to the team messages, Ms. Anderson says. She switched to the blushing smiley emoji, which looked nice with its rosy cheeks—though she adds that she probably never used quite the right one.
Zion Ramirez, 19, who works as an EMT near Los Angeles, has embraced using emojis out of context. “I feel like there’s more creativity and conversation when you’re not using emojis the way they were meant to be used,” he said.
He is firmly against using the regular laughing emoji—a face laughing so hard that tears are coming out of its eyes—which he said his older teammates fire off regularly. He finds it “basic” and says if anyone uses it unironically, there’s a good chance he won’t respond.
In fact, Mr. Ramirez said, he dislikes it so much he designated it as a signifier in case he needs rescuing. “I told my best friend if I ever send her the laughing emoji, she needs to know that I need help,” he said. “Call 911. I am in danger.”
Charlie Nelson Keever, a 31-year-old attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, spends a lot of time analyzing social media accounts to piece together Title IX legal cases. It was while researching narratives and timelines on a case that it dawned on her that young people don’t use smiley faces to mean they are smiling.
She quizzed a Gen Z friend and was baffled by the undertones she learned that some emojis carry for that generation. On its face, the cowboy, a grinning emoji wearing a hat, can signify a special brand of quirky, giggly happiness. But for many in Gen Z, it means the sender is putting on a front, smiling on the outside while dying on the inside.
“I’ve never used the cowboy emoji, and if she sent me that I would have no idea what it meant,” she said.
Ms. Keever feels she should have her finger on the pulse of how people communicate on the internet because she, too, grew up in the internet age.
“There’s nothing that makes you feel older than googling what an emoji means,” she said.
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Appeared in the August 10, 2021, print edition as ‘What a Smiley Emoji Means: Depends on Your Age.’