The thumbs-up emoji has long been one of my favorite responses. It’s simple. It’s versatile. It’s friendly. Or so I thought until a headline from the Daily Mail snapped me out of my blissful stupor this week. “Why NO ONE should use the ‘thumbs up’ emoji in 2022,” the post kicks off.
Cut to me doing the kind of expression you see on the confused emoji: 😕 😕 😕
“Sending a thumbs up can be seen as passive, aggressive and even confrontational, according to Gen Z who say they feel attacked every time it’s used,” reads the article, speaking of a generation through a thread of 10. months in the adulting subreddit and an alleged Perspectus Global poll in which young people name the 10 emojis that make people look old. Thumbs up tops this list, which also includes lipstick face, pile of poop, and red heart. Guilty, guilty and very guilty. 😘 💩 😘
I – a Certified Senior ™, so old I’m excited– often use the thumbs-up emoji to indicate that I have read a colleague’s post, agree with their thinking, or approve of a course of action. In cases that don’t warrant a conversation beyond a quick nod, a thumbs-up has always seemed like an efficient and cheerful way to get the job done. 👍 👍 👍
But the Daily Mail article suggests I could be seen as downright hostile to Generation Z (those born between 1997 and 2012). Like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, that favorite of millennials and millennials, I couldn’t help but wonder… Am I alienating my younger colleagues by relying on the loyal thumbs up ?
The fact that I even ponder such a question highlights the lingering confusion and anxiety over subtext that stems from new and ever-evolving forms of digital communication that often lack the benefits of intonation, eye contact and body language. Heck, a little phone punctuation incident nearly ruined my CNET colleague Erin Carson’s entire college social life.
Until this week, I naively thought of the thumbs-up emoji as, well, a thumbs-up emoji. Sometimes a thumbs-up emoji is just a thumbs-up emoji, Freud said. Freud was not on Slack.
“My last place of work had a WhatsApp chat for our team to send information to each other and most people there just replied with a 👍,” wrote one Reddit user. “I don’t know why, but it felt a bit hostile, like recognition, but sort of ‘I don’t care/I’m not interested’?”
But I do really pay attention and I a m interested. So I asked my colleagues to give it to me directly. Are breathless headlines over an emoji as the latest salvo in endless culture wars exaggerating? Or is a thumbs-up made of pixels really equal to a middle finger? The answer lies somewhere in the middle. 👉 👈
“Too Long on the Internet”
“Yeah, I use it all the time for a quick ‘yeah, I’m on it’ and so on for work,” says science writer Monisha Ravisetti, who is on the cusp of Gen Z. Monisha and I regularly trade five or six thumbs-up emoji every day, so far with few hurt feelings. She likes the effectiveness of a boost at work, but adds that she doesn’t use it in non-work settings.
“In a non-professional context, being ‘effective’ makes me feel dry or insensitive,” says Monisha. “I would probably go for an ‘ok!’ or “perfect”.
My Gen Z colleague, Meara Isenberg, agrees that “thumbs up” a message is always a safe bet. She sometimes sticks a thumbs-up emoji at the end of the texts: “That sounds good” “Perfect”. But she sees how the emoji alone, instead of a response, can seem a bit colder.
I understand. As much as I lean on the symbol, there are Sometimes it seems abrupt – when a friend shares that they finally feel better after being sick, for example. In a case like that, a single thumbs up might sound like a channeling conversation killer that I don’t want to hear anymore.
David Lumb, who covers all things mobile for CNET, sees a similar nuance in the thumbs-up emoji.
“My friend in his 50s sends thumbs up in casual texts and I had to learn not to be offended,” says David, a millennial in his 30s.
“When I think about it,” David continues, “the associations I place on a thumbs-up are kind of absurd — like, an iOS thumbs-up reaction via iMessage is somehow less offensive, but a full emoji feels like going through the effort of sending a single word telegram I’ve lived too long on the internet.
OK, I want to know what is really Rude?
Digital communication, it is clear, leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation. Even something as benign as “OK” can be a sharp sword in the right hands.
“Saying ‘k’ is definitely ruder than a thumbs-up emoji,” suggested my colleague Corinne Reichert. This drew widespread agreement, with one colleague calling the terse “k” a “targeted missile strike”. The former ‘KK’, the team agrees, is a far superior choice. 👍 👍 👍
Of course, deciding between a k or two or choosing the perfect emoji seems like an utterly meaningless activity in a world where Ukraine is under siege and hurricanes are taking away cities and lives.
“Young people don’t give a fuck about a thumbs-up emoji,” one Gen Z member tweeted this week. “I don’t know why the media thinks this is our concern, but we just want healthcare and to be able to make decisions about our own bodies.”
Yet the intricacies of everyday communication impact how we experience our friends and colleagues, and ultimately how we view ourselves. The vagaries of language and iconography reflect important cultural conversations. I’m just not convinced that thumbs up is one of them.
So while I’d rather not be known in the office as a rude old man (at home, that’s another story), I will proudly continue to use the thumbs up – and the red heart, the kissing lipstick, the pile of poo and other symbols that expose me as an elder. Aging brings enough concern without having to worry that every time I click a thumbs-up emoji I’ll be seen as a surly senior yelling “get off my lawn.” ✌😘 👍 👍