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How emojis can cause misunderstandings in the workplace

Posted by Shivali Anand

January 14, 2022    |     4-minute read (715 words)

A generational rift is at play over the use and interpretation of emojis. Over time, people have come to attach diverse meanings to the digital symbols and use them to connote subtle meanings, depending on their generation. The disparity may be so stark that an emoji that appears harmless to one demographic could be offensive to another. 

Differences among generations

Millennials and members of Generation X, or people born between 1981 and 1986 or 1965 and 1980 respectively, tend to interpret emojis literally. They use emojis to represent what the emojis appear to convey at face value.

Members of these generations view emojis as an alternative form of communication that conveys nonverbal cues. They typically communicate with emojis to make their texts or emails seem more friendly and relatable.

But for members of Generation Z, which comprises individuals born between 1997 and 2012, emojis are often not perceived the same way as their elders. Gen Zers imbue new meaning to emojis and use them to communicate sarcasm or a touch of weirdness, for example. 

Because the use of emojis is rampant in text and other forms of online communication, the younger generation's new use for emojis when interacting with older individuals (and vice versa) means these encounters are prone to miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Examples of how emoji interpretations may differ

A smiling emoji, which those over age 30 have long used to indicate positivity, has taken on a negative connotation for Gen Z. Many teens and young adults regard the smiling emoji as an unwanted intrusion whose use is interpreted as condescending or passive-aggressive.

The cranium emoji, often referred to as the skull and crossbones, provides another example of a generational divide. While older individuals associate it with death or peril, Gen Z interprets the cranium emoji to convey "very hilarious," as in "particularly hard to laugh at." Meanwhile, millennials find a crying, laughing emoji to be humorous.

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A chasm exists at work

Although Gen Xers were never big on using emojis at work, since the pandemic has pushed many to work remotely, they're increasingly using emojis in chats and emails. Unfortunately, greater use of emojis in workplaces that span generations has spurred misunderstandings.

A Gen Z intern, for example, was taken aback on her first day on the job at a Brooklyn, New York, digital media firm when her co-workers greeted her with a bright smiling emoji. She interpreted the emoji as communicating a type of side-eye, sarcastic smile, while her co-workers belonged to a generation that uses the emoji for its literal meaning. 

The disconnect among family members

Due to the pandemic, families' text chains have become increasingly active, with Gen X parents and Gen Z children frequently feeling estranged in their online communication.

For example, a 21-year-old Michigan man celebrated his younger brother’s test scores with a crown emoji. He was forced to explain to his Gen X mother that the crown signifies a king and denotes positivity, as she found the symbol strange.

Another example is that of a teenage girl who found her parents' emoji choices amusingly off the mark. A sad emoji of a frowning face that conveyed a disgruntled expression to her father had a more sexual undertone among her Gen Z cohort.

Intergenerational friendships

The generational divide in emoji use has not only confounded Gen X; even millennials may need to look up what an emoji is meant to convey before using it in a message.

For instance, a millennial attorney from San Francisco believed she had her finger on the pulse in terms of how people communicate online. But a conversation with a Gen Z friend prompted her to reconsider. 

For the younger friend, who shared a cowboy emoji — a grinning face wearing a hat — the symbol conveys the feeling of smiling on the outside but dying on the inside. For the attorney, the cowboy emoji suggested quirky happiness.


Just as language evolves, so too have emojis. While they began as cute novelties, now each generation seemingly attaches its own interpretations and emojis lack a universal definition. It’s therefore best to avoid using them in the workplace. Otherwise, misunderstandings can arise between sender and recipient, which in a business setting can have negative consequences.

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