What do emojis mean? How millennials and Gen-Z use them very differently

A guide to the countless differences in the way generations and even genders use emojis in 2021

The icons were hand drawn by myself being careful not to copy those used on computers
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In the beginning, they were just a few keyboard characters at the end of your sentences, added to convey emotion or look “cool”. But when emoticons graduated from simple characters to well-expressed emojis, they spurred a universal language of their own.

For the uninitiated, emoticons are textual portrayals of faces and emotions represented by keyboard characters such as punctuation marks, letters and numbers. Emojis, on the other hand, are the little pictorial icons we all know and love today.

It was 2009 when several engineers from Apple submitted an official proposal to adopt 625 new emoji characters into the Unicode standards, with the decision of making emojis accessible from 2010. Suddenly, they were on phones, social media platforms and emails everywhere.

How people use emojis differently

How people use emojis differently

Millennials versus Generation-Z

Young people did not waste any time incorporating them into their messaging habits. A text without an emoji nowadays might make you seem “dull”, “rude” or too “serious”. Use a thumbs up or a smiley face, however, and you’ll have injected a spot of positivity and enthusiasm into your note.

"When I encounter someone who doesn't use emojis, I immediately sense they are either significantly older than me, or it is work and I have to be extremely professional," says Asma Nur, a Gen-Z public relations specialist in the UAE.

“It makes me uneasy either way. We use them to express our thoughts and feelings without words. With emojis, you can communicate so many things by using one or two icons, cutting down the time you need to type it out. It's time-efficient and conveys emotion easily. It also makes for interesting ways of expressing oneself.”

My conversations are peppered with emojis and seem dry or emotionless without

All of this has made face-to-face or phone conversations a rarer form of communication among young adults. Those in Generation-Z, who were born between 1997 and 2012, might believe growing up in the peak social media era gives them an advantage, but millennials, who were born between 1981 and 1996, were there from the start: they witnessed this new invention come to life.

"I think nowadays emojis have become a huge norm within conversations via text or online," says Mona Arshe, a British millennial teacher and psychologist in the UAE.

"Growing up, it went from emoticons on MSN and Blackberries to later emoji usage on smartphones. Even now, my conversations are peppered with emojis and seem dry or emotionless without. Now, Gen-Z have evolved emoji usage and made several combinations of their own with a different meaning. But I’ve noticed trends move on quick."

Emojis have only grown more sophisticated, too. Every year, Unicode adds more options to its approved list, broadening visual communication and diversifying its selection of icons.

Now you have emojis of different shades and genders, representing a wide variety of occupations and religions, plus people with disabilities. It has become a movement to celebrate and embrace our differences digitally.

And this continues to evolve. As of October 2020, there were 3,521 emojis in the Unicode standards. Nearly one in five tweets contain at least one emoji, and five billion emojis are sent daily over Facebook Messenger, according to Emojipedia statistics.

But there are differences in the ways we use them. Millennials, for example, use emojis simply to make texts friendlier and more understandable. People in this age group consider them an alternative tool for non-verbal cues.

On the other hand, Gen-Z use them in a more nuanced and ironic way.

Here are 7 ways Gen-Z use emojis differently to millennials:

1. Fire 🔥

While millennials might use a heart or even roses to express their approval of someone’s post or picture on social media, Gen-Z may turn to the fire emoji for this, to say something is “hot”, “on fire” (not literally), “lit” or “turnt up”.

2. Eye-roll 🙄

Gifs of celebrities rolling their eyes is a common way of conveying sarcasm or moderate disdain, but not for Gen-Z. For ages 9 to 24, an eye-roll emoji indicates a “duh” moment, often expressing sentiments such as: “Yes, I know I am all that and a bag of chips” or “Why do you even bother asking?”.

3. Slightly smiling face 🙂

You might think this one is quite straightforward – if you’re a millennial, that is. Older folk tend to use the smiley face for its literal meaning, but it’s also often used to express awkwardness or discomfort in situations. For instance, when a friend texts you to apologise for being late, you reply with “smile” to make them uncomfortable and to convey your building frustration.

4. Loudly crying face 😭

This is a classic example of Gen-Z expressing excitement, anger, frustration, laughter and many more overly dramatic feelings. Someone said something hilariously stupid? Or something's so cute you can't handle it? You can use any kind of text with this emoji to exaggerate and highlight your words – it's all in the context.

For older millennials, however, this might just come off as crying and could actually make them worried.

5. Folded hands 🙏

This emoji has sparked so much debate as to what it actually represents. It is commonly used by both generations but in very different ways. Many older millennials use it as high-five, while Gen-Z use it as a please and thank you accompanied by requests. The "person with folded hands emoji" is also used in India to say "namaste".

According to Emojipedia, it means please or thank you, prayer, and rarely a high-five.

6. Eyes, lips, eyes 👁️👄👁️

This combination of emojis, which is usually found in the comments section of a TikTok video, represents staring, shock, anger and surprise or even means "it is what it is". Someone might use this combination of emojis to express helplessness amid the chaotic realities unfolding.

For millennials, these emojis might remind them of the emoticon characters  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ during BBM or early Facebook days.

7. Clown emoji 🤡

The clown face emoji was approved as part of Unicode 9.0 in 2016, and later saw a notable jump in usage on TikTok. It is often used by Gen-Z to express silliness or playfulness, typically saying "you are foolish or playful" or "you are clowning right now".

Top 10 most used emojis on Twitter 2020

  1. Face with tears of joy 😂
  2. Loudly crying face 😭
  3. Pleading face 🥺
  4. Red heart ❤️
  5. Rolling on the floor laughing 🤣
  6. Sparkles 
  7. Smiling face with heart-eyes 😍
  8. Folded hands 🙏
  9. Smiling face with hearts 🥰
  10. Smiling face with smiling eyes 😊

How our use of emojis has changed in 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has changed our world in many ways, including our use of emojis. Icons related to travel and places (for example, desert island 🏝️) have decreased, while the usage of the medical mask emoji (😷) spiked. In the Mena region, the latter emoji was used prolifically in Egypt and Algeria, followed by Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to statistics from Facebook Mena.

The top 10 emojis used across the Mena region are: face with tears of joy (😂); red heart (❤️); black heart (🖤); smiling face with heart-eyes (😍); rolling on the floor laughing (🤣); face blowing a kiss (😘); rose (🌹); sparkling heart (💖); heart suit (♥️); broken heart (💔).

That said, there are some instances in which emoji use still hasn’t become the norm – for example, in the job-hunting process.

"We are yet to see an emoji on a CV,” says Louise Vine, managing director of Inspire Selection, a recruitment company in Dubai. “I don’t think it’s required since an emoji is a form of expressing your emotions and your CV should state facts. The two do not go hand in hand.”

However, she adds, they can be OK to use once a relationship has been established. “In emails, once rapport has been built between a candidate and a client, we do use emojis, such as a smiley face or perhaps a ‘sad’ one, when appropriate. It would also depend on who the audience is and the tone of the email.

"In short, we would not be offended to receive an email with an appropriate emoji.”

Sarah Rasmi, a licensed psychologist and founder of the UAE’s Thrive Wellbeing Centre, clarifies that “emojis add more emotions to a message, they can lighten things up, soften a negative or a difficult message, and also be playful”.

But they can also make it more challenging to read people over text, she warns. “Different people can interpret emojis in different ways.” Case in point: millennials versus Gen-Z.

Rasmi still describes them as an “integral part of our communication” that can be used to “strengthen our message and deepen our bond”.

Ultimately, though, they’ll never replace face-to-face contact, no matter how old you are. “Seeing someone smile in person is more likely to conjure feelings of warmth and closeness than looking at a smiling emoji.”