These Two Emoji Meanings Really Baffle Gen X and Baby Boomers

Not every generational group understands what the little smiley face is telling them.
Emojis can be misinterpreted by older adults.
Emojis can be misinterpreted by older adults. / Anadolu/GettyImages
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The older you get, the less likely you are to be confident in using certain emojis. At least, that’s the conclusion drawn by a recent University of Ottawa study that examined how two of the most senior generational groups, Generation X and Baby Boomers, interpret certain text message and social media symbols.

The research, which was published in Computers and Human Behavior Reports, solicited feedback on emojis from 240 participants between the ages of 18 and 80. After being shown eight of the most often used emojis, they were asked to rate how often they implemented them in their own communication and how well they thought they understood their meaning.

The emojis fell into four categories:

Happiness
Grinning face
Grinning face with smiling eyes
Smiling face with smiling eyes

Sadness
Disappointed
Crying

Surprise
Wide eyes
Screaming face

Anger
Angry

Older adults reported that they were unsure of whether they fully understood the intent behind the surprised face emojis, which use widened eyes, raised eyebrows, and an agape mouth to indicate shock. They were also perplexed by the implications of the variety of happy face emojis and the granular inferences that should be made by the differences in mouth or eye depictions.

It’s not that subjects were totally confounded by the expressions of the characters: Instead, they were less confident that they understood their meaning to be the correct one. As a result, they were less likely to employ them when creating messages. Older subjects were also less likely to use emojis in general.

Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964; Gen X followed from 1965 to 1980. Part of their hesitation may stem from the ironic or otherwise subjective interpretations of emojis deployed by Gen Z, born between 1997 to 2012. A skull emoji, for example, doesn’t necessarily refer to something morbid but dying from laughter or facetious death via exhaustion; a crying face emoji may indicate relief rather than actual sadness. While the grinning and surprised emojis are less ambiguous and older groups probably know what they mean, their lack of certainty seems to keep their thumbs off.

“This pattern of results leads us to conclude that older users have the motivation and ability to utilize emojis, but they lack the confidence and general technology expertise needed to adapt to this mode of communication,” lead author Isabelle Boutet, an associate professor in the School of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, at the University of Ottawa, wrote in the paper.

One possible outcome of emoji wariness is being slower to adopt new technology; the other is a possible communication gap between the generations. As a result, emojis are a kind of digital language barrier.

Fortunately, there are solutions. The study’s aim was to provide data on which emojis were most confusing so that tech companies might consider an emoji menu that employs more accessible and easily understood reactions. There might also be room for community-based social media training. In doing so, Boutet believes communication between generational groups can be improved. Boomers: Insert crying emoji here.

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