As of this month, there are 3,633 “official” emojis available across the world. The tiny pictographs can convey tons of emotions and ideas, but like any form of symbolic communications, their meanings change over time and among different groups of people — especially if one group is millennials and the other is Gen Z. Something as innocuous as the folded hands emoji can mean “please,” “thank you,” “high-five,” or “pray for me, I have COVID,” depending on the context and the texter.
The general rule: Millennials may have popularised texting, but Gen Z was born into it. Their fluidity with the language means they can employ it more subtly, while geriatric millennials tend to use emojis literally, as they were intended, to indicate the tone of a message. Gen Z is way more likely to use them sarcastically and/or ironically.
Take the smiley face, for example
The simple yellow smiley face dates back to the 1960s, and while it started as a banal symbol of corporate happiness, the pictograph has become a cross-generational minefield of misinterpretation. To me, a smiley says “this message is casual and friendly,” but to my 20 year-old-nephew, Finn Gamble, a college student in Santa Barbara, CA, it says the opposite.
“It’s seems sinister, to be honest,” he told me. It’s something you might send to a friend who’s late for a meeting. It says something like “I am tolerating you, and pretending I am happy, but I am not happy.”
So what should you use to communicate “not serious” to youngsters? You could go with Cowboy Hat Face, which “may convey a sense of exuberance, whimsy, confidence, adventure, or other sentiments,” according to emojipedia.com (even though the dude looks a little try-hard to me), or try Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes — for a less passive-aggressive tone.
Laughter, the most-confusing medicine
Back in the pre-emoji days, you could respond to a joke on the internet with LOL (or LMFAO if it was really funny) and call it a day. But now, laughing online is another potential separator of the old from the young.
For instance, although it is the most-used emoji in the world, according to CNN Business Cry-laughing emoji is no longer cool. (And if you can’t trust CNN Business to tell you what’s cool, who can you trust?)
“I use everything but the laughing emoji,” 21-year-old Walid Mohammed Told CNN. “I stopped using it a while back because I saw older people using it, like my mum, my older siblings, and just older people in general.”
So what does Gen Z use to indicate a hilarious-arse joke? Skull.
If your first thought was “that skull clearly indicates death or a cheap Halloween decoration,” you’re probably old. To kids, it means “I’m dying laughing” or just “I’m dead. (From laughing.)”
Alternately, you could go with Loudly Crying Face. To me it looks like something you’d send to indicate “Everything I love was burned up in a fire,” but kids use it mean something like “LMFAO.”
The best move in the emoji-war is not to play
With a slate of new emojis on the way (including my most-anticipated, melting face, which either means “I just nailed the solo from Van Halen’s ‘Eruption’ or ‘It is Tuesday and Global Warming is real,’ depending on your age) the gap in generational-emoji-meaning is likely to widen further until millenial-to-Gen Z-communication is all but impossible. So your best bet is not to worry about it.
If you’re older than say, 25, and you’re trying to speak the same language as teenagers, it’s not going to work. You are going to screw it up and come across as cheugy no matter what you do (see how that sounded?). So take a stand and text however you like. End all your messages with periods. Send only the bee emoji and refuse to explain it. Borrow slang from the 1920s and call your iPhone “the blower.” Let the interns you’re texting try to figure out what you mean. At the end of the day, you drive a much nicer car than they do, so who really cares what little internet pictures they send?
Or better yet, use as few emojis as possible; it’s what the cool kids are doing anyway.
“Mainstream emojis have become so overused that they’re cringey,” According to Gen Z-er Finn, “Some of my friends would get mad at me if I sent them (multiple cry-laughing emojis).”
There is, however, one emoji that is exempt from all this foofaraw, the icon all generations agree upon: Eggplant means “I enjoy vegetables.”
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