Emoji Use May Lead to Intergenerational Miscommunication

What does the “🙂” emoji mean to you?

If it’s just a normal, happy-go-lucky smiley face to you — you know, one you might use at the end of a “Congratulations” text message or something along those lines — then chances are, you’re not a member of Generation Z. For many teenagers and early twenty-somethings, the plain yellow smiley has a more passive aggressive, or even sarcastic, connotation to it. To suggest genuine happiness or any other positive sentiment, members of Gen Z prefer to use other, more expressive emojis, like the blushing and squinting smileys or even the cowboy emoji.


A recent report in the Wall Street Journal broke down the intergenerational differences in emoji use and meaning, highlighting sharp distinctions between millennials, Gen X, baby boomers, and their younger, perhaps more tech savvy counterparts in Gen Z. Interviewing numerous emoji users, WSJ’s Aiyana Ishmael broke down ways in which common emojis have wildly different connotations and frequencies in usage among different generations. Ishmael notes that with the rise of emoji use in work contexts — such as through Slack or Google Workspace — has led to more intergenerational communication problems than ever.

“Take the upset emoji of a frowning face. It is defined by online dictionaries as ‘frustrated.’ … But it reads more sexual for Gen Z,” writes Ishmael. “It’s almost like a pained sigh because somebody is so attractive, [one Gen Z source] said.”

Scholars have been interested in the different ways certain demographic groups use emoticons and emojis for many years now — a quick search on Google Scholar yields several  sociolinguistic surveys of the unique ways people from different groups (a common variable observed in such studies is gender) use these symbols. Many researchers believe that emojis and emoticons fill in for body language, which is of course absent in digital, non-spoken communication.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.

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