How Gen Z Uses Emoji: A Guide For Millennials

genz emoji

Do you speak emoji? If you’re a millennial, you might think you do, since you came of age during the dawn of emojis. What might surprise you is finding out that the meanings of many of even the most popular emojis have completely changed.

Gen Z came along and used their creativity and unique sense of style to reshape the way people use and understand different emojis. Remember the good old days when a smiley face emoji meant you were feeling happy? Yes, even that is different now. But don’t worry because it’s not too late to update your knowledge. Here’s a guide to the new ways Gen Z is using emojis and how to translate their different meanings.

1. skull emoji💀

If you thought skulls were reserved for Halloween, think again. Gen Z uses them as a symbol for laughter. The skull emoji 💀was added to Emoji 1.0 in 2015, and millennials used it in a lighthearted way, too—usually to indicate playful exhaustion. A millennial might say: “Just finished working out. Cause of death: spin class 💀.”

Gen Z is more likely to respond to a joke with a line of skull emojis 💀 intended to mean “I’m dying with laughter” or “I’m dead from laughing.” If the skull emoji 💀 doesn’t fully capture how hilarious the joke or situation is, you can also throw in a headstone emoji 🪦 for good measure.

Example: “Did you watch last night’s Abbott Elementary? 💀💀💀”

2. clown face emoji 🤡

Millennials may think the clown face emoji 🤡 is just a clown, but Gen Z knows better. Thanks to their creative usage, the clown face emoji 🤡 is now a universal symbol for someone who is acting or saying something incredibly foolish. On social media, for example, someone might quote a hot take they disagree with and respond with a string of clown face emojis 🤡. You can also use the clown face emoji 🤡 to describe your own acts of foolishness.

Example: “I really just gave my toddler spaghetti while he was wearing a white shirt 🤡”

3. loudly crying face emoji 😭

When Gen Z uses the loudly crying face emoji 😭, there probably aren’t actual tears involved. Once upon a time, millennials used this emoji to indicate strong emotions that might actually make you cry, like extreme sadness, frustration, or relief. For Gen Z, this emoji is more exclusively used to indicate positive feelings, like when something is so funny, cute, or sweet that it’s totally overwhelming.

Example: “Look at my puppy wearing his new Halloween costume. 😭”

4. grinning face with sweat emoji 😅

You know the meme that shows the cartoon dog sitting in a burning room saying, “This is fine”? This is the emoji version of that. It’s called the grinning face with sweat emoji 😅, and it’s been a part of Unicode since 2010. While millennials used to use it for actually sweaty situations, like working out or talking to a crush, Gen Z uses it more sarcastically. For them, this emoji means “I’m stressed, but I’m fine.”

Example: “Guess who has 8 meetings on their calendar today? 😅”

5. thumbs up emoji 👍

Is the thumbs up emoji 👍 always a good thing? Not necessarily. While millennials once used this one to say “good job” or even “I’ve got it,” Gen Z prefers to use it ironically. If you get a thumbs up emoji 👍 in the 2020s, it’s likely you’re receiving a sarcastic or passive-aggressive “good job” on something you botched or even a “sure, whatever” in response to something you’ve said. Either way, it’s more of an insult than a positive sign.

Example: “Thanks for telling Ava about her surprise party. 👍

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6. folded hands emoji 🙏

The folded hands emoji 🙏 has confused people for a long time. Are they praying? Are they high-fiving? The answer may depend on your generation. While this one has been commonly used to indicate a millennial high five, Gen Z uses it as a way of saying “thank you” or of indicating that they’re really hoping for something.

Example: “Tell me you have an extra ticket to the Brandi Carlile show. 🙏”

7. fire emoji🔥

Is something burning? Well, not literally. The fire emoji 🔥 means something is lit, super stylish, or even hot (as in attractive) or sexy. This emoji has always been more popular for describing metaphorical fires versus actual ones. Millennials used it to mean something was “on fire,” as in cool or awesome. The slang may have changed, but this is one emoji that spans the generational divide.

Example: “OMG your dress 🔥🔥🔥.”

8. eyes emoji 👀

If someone texts you the eyes emoji 👀 in 2022, what they mean is “I’m listening” or “tell me more.” When this one first joined Emoji 1.0 in 2015, its meaning was slightly different. The eyes emoji 👀 used to be a symbol for giving someone the side-eye or even noticing that something is creepy or not quite how it should be. It can still be used that way in some instances, but now it’s more commonly a sign of interest and attentiveness.

Example: “Taylor Swift just said a new album is coming out. 👀”

9. upside-down face emoji 🙃

No, this isn’t just a smiley face that went topsy-turvy. The upside-down face emoji  🙃 is basically code for “this is terrible” or FML. It’s used when things aren’t going well or the user is having a terrible day. This modern usage is an update to the millennial sense. For the older generation, this emoji often indicated sarcasm or even silliness. The new meaning is decidedly more literal and straightforward.

Example: “So, my flight just got canceled. 🙃”

10. hourglass emoji⏳

Gen Z has a thing for the hourglass emoji ⏳, but not to indicate anything to do with time. Where other generations might use this to mean “time is ticking” or “you’re on the clock,” Gen Z uses it when someone is attractive. Think: the classic hourglass figure. Surprised? Well, it could be even zanier. The pregnant woman emoji 🤰 has also taken on a second meaning that has to do with how hot people are. If someone reacts with a pregnant woman emoji 🤰, it could mean the subject matter is so attractive, it made the person responding “pregnant.”

Example: “I need to find a dress for the party that makes me look ⏳.”

11. slightly smiling face emoji 🙂

If you’re happy and you know it, maybe send a different emoji. While the slightly smiling face emoji 🙂 was once the quintessential symbol of joy, it’s used a bit differently these days. Now, this emoji can be used ironically. It might indicate a fake smile, such as one you’d use in awkward situations or when you’re feeling uncomfortable.

Example: “Well, time to go take this test I didn’t study for. 🙂”

Learn all about the history of the happiest face on earth, this smiley-face emoji.

12. shocked emoji combination 👁️👄👁️

The meaning of this emoji combination may shock you. No, really, it means “shocked” or “shocking.” This is a new one for millennials, who previously may have used an open-mouthed emoji to indicate shock or surprise. The idea is that it looks like wide eyes and a slack-jawed mouth, like the typical response one might have to shocking news.

Example: “Did you see the election results? 👁️👄👁️”

13. kissing face emoji 😗

Is this emoji giving a kiss? If you answered yes, you probably aren’t a member of Gen Z. For those younger and hipper, the kissing face emoji 😗 means “sounds good to me” or even “ohhh.” It’s something you’d use in response to making plans, a good idea or even a photo of something you really like.

Example: “Yes, 6 pm is perfect. 😗😗”

14. heart emoji ❤️

Hearts are a universal symbol for love, but they’re also important in a new kind of emoji language. On TikTok, younger generations are using fairy comments, or hard speech combined with “soft” emojis that lessen the blow. For example, this classic heart emoji ❤️ might be paired with the word “no” to create a message that means “sorry, but no.” Millennials, take note: a heart doesn’t always mean “I love you.”

Example: “Skinny jeans are still cool, right?” “No ❤️”

15. zany face emoji 🤪

If you’re feeling goofy or silly, this is the emoji for you. For previous generations, the zany face emoji 🤪 wasn’t quite as popular. Millennials may be more likely to use a face with tears of joy emoji 😂 or the upside-down face emoji 🙃 to indicate their own silliness. For Gen Z, this is the emoji that indicates that you’re being goofy, dorky, partying, or just in a really weird mood. When someone uses it, be prepared for the conversation to take some silly turns.

Example: “It’s 5pm, and I just drank an entire venti pumpkin spiced latte. 🤪”

Take the quiz

Now that you’ve seen how emoji meanings can evolve over generations, why not show off how on fire 🔥 your emoji skills are by taking our quiz.

Learn some of the slang that has become popular among the Gen Z crowd.

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