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Sunday, October 23, 2022
By Shephali Bhatt

Maybe we’ve got the Gen Z and “cringe” emojis debate all wrong?

A lot (of confusion) can happen over an emoji. Apoorva Gupta was woken up at night by her parents one day. Her brother–who lives overseas–had sent them a ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji on WhatsApp, which they misinterpreted as him crying over something. “They were so stressed until I explained that the emoji actually conveys he is laughing hysterically,” recalls the 23-year-old product manager from Pune.


Emojis are an integral part of how most of us communicate online. Given their visual nature, they are often open to multiple interpretations, which can be detrimental to the main objective of communication: that the message is received in the way it was intended.

Since “texting is the primary way for Gen Z to connect with friends and family, it is all the more important for them that their emojis are interpreted correctly and vice versa,” says Sylvia Sierra, a US-based linguist and academician. That’s pretty much why you keep hearing about Gen Z, the demographic cohort that forms the largest generation on the planet, constantly updating their online lexicon.

Around this time last year, I had written about how smileys had become uncool for them, punctuation mark emojis (or emoticons) were back in vogue, abbreviations were dank, and removing your WhatsApp display picture (DP) was now seen as an attempt to seek attention.

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Since then, folks born between 1997-2012, roughly 30% of whom are from India, are said to have been instrumental in branding GIFs as ‘cringe’, full stops as ‘intimidating’, and the thumbs up emoji as ‘passive-aggressive’.

Two weeks ago, Matt Navarra, a UK-based social media consultant and industry analyst, tweeted a list of 10 emojis that could possibly make you seem “old” or “out of touch” according to Gen Z.


Matt ended the tweet with a tongue-in-cheek message to Gen Z: a ‘middle finger’ emoji.

Even as the evolution of language is as old as time itself, and so is the initial resistance to that change, our first reaction to any change Gen Z brings to our internet language is that of mocking them for being “snowflakes” and purveyors of “cancel culture”. It is almost immediately followed by a turf war between them and the millennials.

This war is quite unnecessary, says Arunav Ghosh, a 17-year-old humanities student from Kolkata. “A lot of the Gen Z language comes from AAVE - African American Vernacular English. It is first appropriated by the US mainstream. Then the elite in India adopt it and judge people in their age group who don’t use it. It becomes some form of classism then,” he notes.

Age difference becomes a mellowing point in this case, says Arunav. “You judge the person in your age group more because they’re not privileged to have access to information to know of these changes.”

Aanya Zaveri couldn’t agree more. “Emojis are like ripped jeans. Some people just won’t get it,” says the 13-year-old student from Mumbai. “I never use the skeleton emoji in our family group because I know they won’t get that it’s to convey laughter at something funny. But I can’t use outdated emojis while chatting with peers because they’re quick to label you as ‘cringe’ then,” she adds. Aanya doesn’t use most of the emojis mentioned in Matt Navarra’s tweet because they’re either too formal or creepy or ambiguous.

Most emojis become uncool with Gen Z because their interpretation is ambiguous, says Devarsh Thaker, 30, marketer at a tech company that caters specifically to the Gen Z cohort. The thumbs up emoji and GIFs don’t work for them anymore for this very reason. [They find stickers far more unambiguous compared to GIFs].

“You have to understand that they’re communicating with far more people than we did and across different platforms like Discord, Snapchat, and BeReal, among the usual ones. They have to find the most effective and efficient ways of saying something without sounding uncool,” he adds.

Further, it seems like a “US thing” to cancel emojis, says Vivaan Jain, a 15-year-old student from Singapore. “Unlike my younger cousins, most of my friends and I don’t care about emojis and don’t even use them all that much,” he says. “Emojis are useful when you have easy access to them on a keyboard because we’re using desktops to study a lot more now since the pandemic. Emojis have just devolved for us over time,” he adds. “We prefer saying ‘okay’ instead of using the ‘thumbs up’ emoji. It’s just convenient.”

Gen Z is trying to come to an agreement on emoji usage for good reason, says Arunav from Kolkata. If a superior sends him positive feedback on a presentation but suffixes a smiley with it, he will end up feeling anxious about it. Conversations can go horribly wrong because of this ambiguity, he says. That's why you need some basic rules. “As we already established, texting is about less effort for us. So, if you’re putting a full stop at the end of your last sentence in a message, it can feel like it may have an additional implication. Perhaps you want the conversation to end here? Hence we avoid using it,” he adds.

And yet, generational war over language changes is de rigueur. We saw that when “hip hop language” became a form of expression, notes linguist Sylvia who is also the assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University. We saw this when “dude” became an acceptable salutation for the millennials and when it was replaced by “bro”. And when OK became just 'K' till millennials called it out for being passive-aggressive. “Any kind of slang is always subject to backlash from older generations,” says Sylvia.

Broadly, the generational war ensues because language, while being ubiquitous, is also very personal. “Any rejection of a language you’re affiliated with—proficient or not—feels almost like a rejection of you as a person,” says Emmett Bullions, a self-taught linguist from the UK.

The generations before Zoomers have learnt the ropes of communication via letters, landline phones, pagers, SMSes, and now the internet. Given the dynamic nature of the internet, rules change rather frequently here (much like Instagram’s algorithm). Hence, all those hours you spent “working on updating terms into your [web] lexicon like some sort of linguistic olive branch suddenly feel like a waste of time,” adds Emmett. Your efforts are rendered worthless. “And who are we if not the efforts we make?”

Psychologists reckon the older generations retaliate to these changes due to a primary stress response their brain sends when it spots anything different from the usual. “What they want to say is ‘This is new, I don’t know this". What comes out instead is, “This is wrong”,” says Ketaki Natekar, senior psychologist and platform content lead at Mindpeers, a mental health platform.

Gen Z’s tendency to ‘cancel’ and label things as ‘toxic’ or ‘cringe’ stems from their need to prioritise their well-being over everything else, says Ketaki. “Currently, the older generations don’t have enough proof to understand why something can be emotionally toxic for Gen Zers to have such strong views on emoji usage,” she adds.

Ketaki advises they initiate a dialogue with Gen Z. “Talk about why something is cringe. Discuss alternatives to cancel culture because we can bring in the emotional maturity they’re still struggling to build. Make them feel seen and heard, something your generation didn’t get,” she says. “A turf war doesn’t help anyone.”


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Shephali chronicles how the internet is changing the way we live, and how our changing ways force tech companies to transform themselves. You can write to her on Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin.

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