Should you ‘smile’ when you say that? Emojis now mean different things to different people

August 19, 2021

A smiley face isn’t always just a smiley face. Behind the yellow, wide-eyed emoji’s grin lurks an intergenerational minefield, reports The Wall Street Journal.

People over the age of 30 generally use emojis to convey what the images always did, while younger “digital natives” might ascribe sarcastic meanings to them, or use them as shorthand for an entirely different thought.

For example, the skull and crossbones means death or hazard to many adults. However, 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,  tells the Journal that he 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, says that emojis as used by her sons’ generation are a whole new language—and one she misinterprets all the time. Kathawate says 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?’ ”

Similarly, Rachel Eliza, 19, tells the Journal that 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.

Eliza says 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, Washington, 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, Francisco said. “Coach Anderson was shocked.”

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, 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.

Research contact: @WSJ

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