5 Emojis That Can Cause Misunderstandings Across Generations and Cultures

You may be surprised to learn that emojis have been around since 1997 when they were first introduced on Japanese mobile phones, but it wasn’t until the early 2010s that they really started to take off in popularity. Since then, almost everyone with a mobile phone has used emojis at some point, though it seems like Generation Z is the final authority on each emoji.

As a result, each generation has its own interpretation of what emojis mean, and it has caused a lot of misunderstandings over the years. Certain emojis can be seen as lighthearted to some while passive-aggressive or downright mean to others. Let’s take a look at five emojis that are causing misunderstandings across generations and cultures around the world.

1. Thumbs Up

For some generations, the thumbs-up hand gesture is a symbol of something good or that you understand what someone said. Oftentimes, it’s used as a way of saying “got it” to someone. It’s short and sweet, and for the most part, nobody means anything negative behind it. Out of all of the emojis on smartphones, though, Generation Z has dubbed it as the most passive-aggressive of all.

What makes it so negative, though? Some of those that were polled said that they weren’t quite sure, but it seemed hostile and rude. Younger people that are entering the workforce for the first time and receiving instant messages from older bosses are saying that they have to train themselves to know that there’s no hostility behind the thumbs up.

2. Shrugging

The shrugging gesture is one of those things that certainly comes across better in person or over the phone than in an emoji. If there’s a question where you don’t know the answer, you can give a friendly “I’m not sure” or “let me check,” or even shrug your shoulders in person. That doesn’t quite translate in text, and the recipient might think you’re annoyed with them.

The emoji has been adopted as a sign of being passive-aggressive or sarcastic, especially on social media. For example, people will often use the shrugging emoji posted with a news article asking “Why aren’t people talking about this?” or “just saying.”

3. Upside-Down Smiley

On its surface, the upside-down smiling emoji is incredibly harmless. Everyone loves a cute smiley face and it looks downright silly when it’s upside-down. That’s not what it means to younger people, though. The emoji typically indicates sarcasm or frustration, with people often using it when they feel defeated.

However, older generations have their own use for the upside-down smiley. It’s typically used for someone that’s simply being goofy with their texts and means nothing negative in their message. If you receive one from an older person, you’re probably in the clear.

4. Checkmark

The checkmark emoji and the thumbs-up emoji tend to go hand in hand, with most people (especially in the working world) using it as a form of saying “understood.” The checkmark can be used in several different ways than the thumbs-up emoji, too. It can be used for personal checklists, and for the most part, it means that everything is good.

There are certain circles in which the checkmark can be seen as a form of passive aggression, though. Around 17 percent of people who were polled said the standard checkmark was passive-aggressive, while the version with the green background being the more universally accepted of the two.

5. OK Hand

The OK hand symbol is something that used to have almost no negative connotation, but has gone the way of the thumbs-up by being packed with sarcasm. Even worse, the OK symbol has been said to be used by certain ethnic groups in a less-than-savory way. With that in mind, it might be best to stay away from the OK hand if it’s someone that you don’t know.

The same can be said with any of these emojis, too. If you know the person that you’re sending them too on a personal basis, there’s really not much to worry about. When you’re using them with a stranger, though, always air on the side of caution. 

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