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Emoji Meanings: Does That Emoji Mean What You Think It Does?

A screen full of different emojis. Emoji meanings differ by generation.

Ask a bunch of people about emoji meanings and you might get a bunch of different answers. And if those people represent different generations, that’s where the fun begins.

Emojis are those ubiquitous icons on our phones and in social media meant to convey a whole array of feelings. They have taken on new meanings for millennials and Gen Z users. And if you aren’t paying attention, you or your business risk appearing old school and out of touch.

“70% of the meaning of an oral conversation comes from non-verbal cues. Emojis add personality to the text and generate empathy among users, an essential thing for effective communication,” says Professor Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics Behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats

In Episode 176 of the Experience This! podcast, I quizzed my co-host Joey Coleman, a Gen X’er, and my son Mark, a Gen Z’er, on emoji meanings. Their answers were remarkably different. (More on that in a moment.)

NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe investigated the apparent death of the thumbs up emoji, although it turns out that reports of its death may be greatly exaggerated.

Rascoe’s radio segment features a father discussing certain emoji meanings with his 13-year-old daughter and running into some confusion – not unlike when I talked with Joey and Mark.

Did you know? When not playing with emojis, Dan Gingiss is on stage engaging and inspiring audiences around the world. Learn more here or contact Dan to hold a date for your upcoming event!

What the Experts Say

Rascoe then spoke to Susan Herring, a linguistics professor at Indiana University who specializes in digital communication.

Herring said that a lot of emojis that Millennials used, or even Gen X’ers used, have been “bleached of their impact” by Gen Z’ers. “So now they need something that has a stronger impact, that’s more outrageous or more over-the-top,” she added.

In other words, emoji meanings are fluid, and can mean different things to different people.

“Emojis can get lost in translation,” said Marty Estelle Lundstrom, founder of Polished Professionals and certified etiquette consultant with Manners Pro. “While a red-faced emoji might mean ‘angry’ to one person, another person might interpret it as ‘embarrassed.’”

Since understanding your customers is a critical part of customer experience strategy, knowing the different interpretations of emojis by generation is important in crafting your organization’s communication strategy.

Related: Using Emojis In Customer Service Improves The Experience

Comparing Gen X to Gen Z

So let’s get into the different interpretations of 10 popular emojis, at least as it pertains to Gen X (born between 1966 and 1980) vs. Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012). Then we’ll review a whole bunch more, looking at both emoji meanings where there are generational differences and at ones where everyone seems to agree on meaning.

Thumbs up emoji 👍

JOEY (Gen X): I would say that it either means “I agree with you” or “it’s a plan” or some type of an affirmative. “Yep. Let’s do that.”

MARK (Gen Z): It’s kind of like a dry response to when you think something is good. Like you don’t care enough to say words about it. You just use it to kind of end the conversation abruptly.

Commentary: Older generations see “it’s good” or “A-OK.” But as Mark explained, younger generations think that there’s an element of sarcasm in there, like, “I don’t have enough time to respond to this” or “I don’t really care.” So to them it’s more of a throwaway emoji, whereas older generations use it much more often and with a much more positive intention.

Skull emoji 💀

JOEY (Gen X): One of two things, either dead or some type of a Halloween reference.

MARK (Gen Z): I feel like the skull emoji kind of replaced the laughing emoji. It’s used after a joke or in responding to a joke, [to say] you thought it was funny.

Clown face emoji 🤡

JOEY (Gen X): Either that’s funny or like a sarcastic “you’re clowning me.”

MARK (Gen Z): Clown face emoji is used as an insult to call someone a clown.

Loudly crying face emoji 😭

JOEY (Gen X): I’ve got to admit, I’m not sure because I use the one that has like the little water droplets going down the face [officially called Face With Tears of Joy], which I think could potentially mean the same thing, which is like, I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying loudly.

MARK (Gen Z): Crying face emoji is kind of used like after a joke or in response to a joke to kind of show that you think it’s funny. Or sometimes it can be used to taunt someone.

Grinning face with sweat emoji 😅

JOEY (Gen X): I’ve got to admit, I’ve never used this emoji. If I had to guess, it would be something like “I’m laughing at the exercise I’m doing.” I don’t know. I have no idea. I’m showing my lack of emoji knowledge on this one.

MARK (Gen Z): The grinning face emoji is used when you’re in an awkward situation. Normally when I use it, I type in “heh” which is like it’s just kind of [an] awkward situation.

Folded hands emoji 🙏

JOEY (Gen X): Like, here’s hoping. Here’s praying that it works out this way.

MARK (Gen Z): So this is like the “prayers up” emoji. You use it if you’re wishing someone good luck or happy birthday or thanking someone even.

Commentary: I always thought this one looked like hands that were praying. Mark did reference praying, but he said referenced “prayers up” which is not the way that I might think of prayer. Even more fascinating: Millennials look at the folded hands emoji and see a high five. After all, it’s two hands that are coming together. Many people just assume that it’s two of the same person’s hands. Millennials see two different hands. Others use the raised hand emoji or the raising hands emoji to represent a high five. Emoji meanings galore!

Fire emoji 🔥

JOEY (Gen X): “Ooh, that’s hot.” Like, “ooh, that outfit is fire” or “ooh, burn.”

MARK (Gen Z): The fire emojis is kind of self-explanatory. It’s like, “that’s fire.” Like, that’s cool, that’s nice. When someone does something good, you put the fire emoji to show that you’re proud of them, and that it’s fire.

Commentary: Maybe it’s not so self-explanatory?

Eyes emoji 👀

JOEY (Gen X): I think of googly eyes when I think of this one. Whatever was just written or said in the thread is shocking. Like whatever it’s looking at is some shocking. “Oh my gosh, can you believe that?”

MARK (Gen Z): The eyes emoji can be used when you think something’s important and you’re kind of eyeing it. Or again, it’s if someone does something good. You put the eyes emoji to show you’re watching them, like “all eyes on” them.

Commentary: Millennials refer to this one as “I’m listening.” So even though it’s eyes, not ears, it refers to listening or paying attention.

Related: Viewing The Customer Experience Through Your Customers’ Eyes

Upside-down face emoji 🙃

JOEY (Gen X): No idea, no idea whatsoever. I’m laughing as I’m falling over. I don’t know.

MARK (Gen Z): I don’t use this emoji.

Commentary: Millennials often use this emoji to mean FML, or f**k my life, a good reminder to be sure you know your emoji meanings before sending! It can also “indicate silliness, sarcasm, irony, passive aggression, or frustrated resignation,” according to Dictionary.com, which apparently tracks emoji definitions.

Kissing face emoji 😗

(Not to be confused with the kissing face with heart emoji.)

JOEY (Gen X): I’m glad you clarified that, because I use the one that I would almost call the “blowing kisses emoji” that has the little heart. I don’t even feel like I would know that it was kissing if you didn’t tell me it was kissing because of the way the mouth is created. I don’t know. Maybe like [makes sound of kiss] “love you,” that type of a sound effect emoji.

MARK (Gen Z): The kissing face emoji is like a sign of affection within friends. You’re going to send it to show affection.

 

More Emoji Meanings and Their Generational Differences

Here are some more examples of popular emojis and the potential for confusion among generational interpretations:

Emoji Official Name Gen X Interpretation Gen Z Interpretation Commentary
🤔 Thinking Face Thinking or pondering Skeptical or side-eye Gen Z often uses this to convey doubt or suspicion, which might be seen as more straightforward pondering by Gen X.
😂 Face with Tears of Joy Laughing or very funny Overused or cringey The traditional laughing emoji might be considered outdated by younger generations.
🥺 Pleading Face Begging or pleading Cute or adorable While Gen X might use this to show desperation, Gen Z also uses it to signify cuteness or endearment.
🥳 Partying Face Party or celebration Celebratory but in a playful way Gen Z might use this in a more playful and less formal context compared to Gen X, which uses it more literally.
😤 Face with Steam from Nose Angry or frustrated Determined or competitive Gen X uses this to show anger, while Gen Z also uses it to show determination or competitiveness.
🫶 Heart Hands Showing love or appreciation Platonically sentimental Gen X sees this as a positive, loving gesture, but Gen Z uses it as a more sentimental form of appreciation.
🥰 Smiling Face with Hearts Affection or love Feeling loved or showing love Both generations use this emoji to show affection, but it might be used more in a romantic context by Gen Z.
❤️ Red Heart Love or deep affection Love, but also friendship or positivity While Gen X might use this mainly to show love, Gen Z uses it more broadly for friendship and positive feelings.
🤓 Nerd Face Geeky or studious Used to make fun of or mimic someone Gen X interprets this literally as a nerd or geek, while Gen Z uses it more ironically to poke fun at someone.
😐 Neutral Face Unimpressed or indifferent Unamused or upset Gen Z might use this emoji more often to convey that they are not laughing at something.
🤪 Zany Face Being silly or crazy Unsubtle flirtation Gen X thinks silliness while Gen Z looks at this emoji as potentially having sexual connotations.
☝️ Index Finger Pointing Up Hold on or “we’re #1” “Actually” to correct someone or “what’s up brother” Gen X often uses this similar to a foam finger at a sporting event while Gen Z uses it to correct someone.

Where the Generations Agree on Emoji Meanings

Some emoji meanings seem to be universal, so it’s OK to send these to your child or grandchild without fear of misinterpretation:

Emoji Official Name Interpretation Commentary
🤯 Exploding Head Mind-blown Both generations use this to express amazement or surprise.
👌 OK Hand Okay or perfect While the tone might slightly differ, both generations understand it as indicating approval or perfection.
😎 Smiling Face with Sunglasses Cool or confident Both generations recognize this emoji as representing coolness or confidence, with Gen Z sometimes using it humorously.
🙌 Raising Hands Praise or celebration Both generations see it positively, but Gen Z uses it more for expressing excitement.
👏 Clapping Hands Applause or congratulations Used similarly by both generations to show appreciation or applause.

Leveraging Emojis in Business Communication

Emojis are more than just fun icons; they are a powerful tool for businesses to connect with their customers. By tapping into the emotional resonance that emojis can provide, brands can make their messages more relatable and engaging, especially when communicating with younger audiences.

Brands like Domino’s and Taco Bell have successfully used emojis to enhance customer engagement. For instance, Domino’s launched an innovative campaign that allowed customers to order pizza simply by tweeting a pizza emoji 🍕. This not only simplified the ordering process but also created a memorable and playful interaction with the brand. Similarly, Taco Bell campaigned for a taco emoji 🌮, engaging its audience in a fun and participatory way that strengthened brand loyalty.

Starbucks frequently uses emojis in its social media marketing to engage with its audience. During seasonal promotions, the coffee giant uses festive emojis to create excitement and a sense of community. For example, a post announcing a new holiday drink might include a Christmas tree emoji 🎄 or a snowflake ❄️.

Emojis also help convey emotions and tone that plain text might miss. For customer service interactions, using the right emoji can diffuse tense situations and show empathy. As a simple example, using a heart emoji ❤️ in a response can show care and appreciation, while a smiley face 😊 can make your message feel more friendly and approachable. This is particularly effective on social media platforms where quick, personable interactions are key. Just be sure to keep the generational emoji meanings in mind and “know your audience.”

Conclusion: Emoji Meanings Differ By Generations

So what can we learn from this exercise?

Firstly, everybody is using emojis in the way their generation understands them.

But it’s really important that organizations understand which generation(s) their communication are targeting. One generation might interpret one thing while another might interpret something completely different.

Pay attention to your customer base and how they communicate. You don’t want to be that brand that misuses an emoji in email or social media and alienates an entire generation of customers. Understand and even appreciate that the different segments of your customer base may speak or text differently.

And don’t forget that emoji meanings, like language itself, are subject to change.

Professor Herring notes that this is pretty typical for young people since well before anyone had even heard of an emoji.

“It’s characteristic of what young people do with language,” she told NPR. “They’re always generating new expressions and new words and new ways of speaking to distinguish themselves in opposition to other groups that are perceived as being out of it or square, as we used to say back in the day.”

Yep, “square” kind of gives away Herring’s age, much as the perception of certain emoji meanings do.

By leveraging emojis thoughtfully, businesses can enhance their customer communication, making it more engaging and effective. Understanding the nuances of emoji usage across different generations ensures that your messages resonate well with your target audience.

And as with most things, companies need to be where their customers are on this, not the other way around.

So is the thumbs up emoji dead? Nope. It just gained a dose of healthy sarcasm.

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E on Unsplash.

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