The thumbs-up emoji has long been one of my go-to responses. It’s simple. It’s versatile. It’s friendly. Or so I thought until a Daily Mail headline jolted me out of my emoji-happy stupor last week. “Why NOBODY should be using the ‘thumbs up’ emoji in 2022,” the publication blares.
Cut to me making 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 claim they feel attacked whenever it is used,” reads the article, speaking for a generation by way of a 10-month-old Reddit thread and an alleged Perspectus Global poll in which young ‘uns cite the 10 emojis that make people seem ancient. The thumbs-up tops that list, which also includes the lipstick kissy face, the pile of poop and the red heart. Guilty, guilty and very guilty. 😘 💩 😘
I — a certified old person™, so ancient I’m excited Blink-182’s reuniting — often use the thumbs-up emoji to signal I read a co-worker’s message or agree with their thinking. In instances that don’t warrant conversation beyond a quick nod, a thumbs-up has always seemed like an effective, cheerful way to get the job done. 👍 👍 👍
But the Daily Mail article suggests I may be coming across to Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) as hostile. Like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, that favorite of Gen X and millennials, I couldn’t help but wonder… Am I alienating my younger colleagues with my reliance on the trusty thumbs-up?
That I’d even ponder such a question highlights the perennial confusion and anxiety over subtext that arises from new and ever-evolving forms of digital communication that often lack the added benefit of intonation, eye contact and body language. Heck, a little phone punctuation mishap almost ruined my CNET colleague Erin Carson’s entire college social life.
Sometimes a thumbs-up emoji is just a thumbs-up emoji, Freud once said. Freud wasn’t on Slack.
“My last workplace had a WhatsApp chat for our team to send info to each other on and most of the people on there just replied with a 👍,” wrote a Reddit user. “I don’t know why but it seemed a little bit hostile to me, like an acknowledgement but kind of saying ‘I don’t really care/am not interested’?”
But I do really care and I am interested. So I asked my co-workers to give it to me straight. Are headlines about an emoji as the latest salvo in the never-ending culture wars exaggerating? Or is an upturned digital thumb truly tantamount to a middle finger? The answer rests somewhere in the middle. 👉 👈
‘Too long on the internet’
“Yeah, I use it all the time for a quick ‘yes I’m on it’ and such for work,” says science writer Monisha Ravisetti, who’s on the cusp of Gen Z and Gen Y. Monisha and I regularly exchange five or six thumbs-up emoji daily, so far with few hurt feelings. She likes the efficiency of a thumbs-up at work, but adds that she doesn’t use it in nonprofessional settings.
“In a nonprofessional context, being ‘efficient’ feels like I’m coming across as curt or insensitive,” Monisha says. “I’d probably opt for an ‘okay!’ or ‘perfect.'”
My Gen Z colleague Meara Isenberg agrees that “thumbing up” a message is always a safe bet. She does occasionally tack a thumbs-up emoji onto the end of texts: “Sounds good” “Perfect.” But she sees how the emoji standing alone, in place of a reply, could seem a bit colder.
David Lumb, who covers all things mobile for CNET, sees similar nuance in the thumbs-up emoji.
“My mid-50s friend sends thumbs-ups in casual texts and I had to learn not to be offended,” says David, a millennial in his mid-30s.
“When I think about it,” David continues, “the associations I place on a thumbs-up are a bit nonsensical — like, an iOS thumbs-up reaction through iMessage is less offensive somehow, but a full emoji feels like going through the effort of sending a telegram containing a single word. I’ve lived too long on the internet.”
We all have, David, we all have, but I get it. As much as I thumbs-up online, there are times it might seem abrupt. If a friend shared that had a great day, for example, a lone thumbs-up could read like a conversation killer channeling that I don’t care to know more.
K, but wanna know what’s really rude?
Digital communication, it’s clear, leaves plenty of room for misinterpretation. Even an uttering as seemingly benign as “OK” can become a sharpened sword in the right texting hands.
“Saying ‘k’ is definitely ruder than a thumbs-up emoji,” my colleague Corinne Reichert suggested. This elicited widespread agreement, with one co-worker calling the terse “k” a “targeted missile strike.” The ol’ “KK,” the team agrees, is a far superior choice. 👍 👍 👍
Of course, deciding between one k or two or picking the pitch perfect emoji seem like downright trivial pursuits in a world where Ukraine is under siege and hurricanes wash towns and lives away.
“Young people do not give a shit about a thumbs-up emoji,” one Gen Z’er tweeted this week. “Idk why media people think that’s at the front of our minds but we just want healthcare and to be able to make decisions about our own bodies.”
Still, the subtleties of day-to-day communication impact the way we experience our friends and co-workers, and ultimately how we perceive ourselves. The vagaries of language and iconography reflect important cultural conversations. I’m just not convinced the thumbs-up is one of them.
So even though I’d rather not be known around the office as a boorish elder (at home is a different story), if my thumbs-up-emoji makes me look “old,” so be it. 😘 My informal research shows it’s not causing emotional distress, and anyway, generational differences can be illuminating, even charming. Plus, aging brings enough concerns without having to worry that every time I click on an emoji, I’ll be viewed as a surly senior shouting “get off my lawn.” 👍 👍