Asmiley face isn\'t always just a smiley face. Behind the yellow, wide-eyed emoji\'s grin lurks an intergenerational minefield.

The ubiquitous emoji means happy, good job or any number of other positive sentiments to most people over about age 30. But for many teens and 20-somethings,a smiley face popping up in a text or email is seen as patronizing or passive-aggressive.

Hafeezat Bishi, 21, started an internship at a Brooklyn digital media firm and was taken aback when co-workers greeted her with a bright smiley face. For Ms. Bishi, the welcome didn\'t seem warm but dismissive. She sees the image as conveying a kind of side-eye smile, not a genuine one.

The rise of emoji use at work, such as between remote teams during the pandemic, has created more misunderstanding than ever, said Erica Dhawan, the author of “Digital Body Language: How to Build Trust and Connection, No Matter the Distance.”

People over 30 generally use emojis to convey what the images always did, she said, while younger “digital natives” might ascribe sarcastic meanings to them,or use them as shorthand for an entirely different thought.

The skull and crossbones means death or hazard to many adults. Many younger people say that to them it signifies laughing extremely hard—as in “I\'m laughing so hard, I\'m dying.”

Rachel Eliza, 19, said she spends a lot of time explaining to her parents why their emoji selections, to her, are humorously off-base.

Take the upset emoji of a frowning face. It is defined by online dictionaries as“frustrated,” and she said that\'s how her father uses it. But it reads more sexual for Gen Z. It\'s almost like a pained sigh because somebody is so attractive, she said.

Charlie Nelson Keever, a 31-year-old attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area, spends a lot of time analyzing social media accounts to piece together Title IX legal cases. It was while researching narratives and timelines on a case that it dawned on her that young people don\'t use smiley faces to mean they are smiling.

She quizzed a Gen Z friend and was baffled by the undertones she learned that some emojis carry for that generation. On its face, the cowboy, a grinning emoji wearing a hat, can signify a special brand of quirky, giggly happiness. But for many in Gen Z, it means the sender is putting on a front, smiling on the outside while dying on the inside.

Ms. Keever feels she should have her finger on the pulse of how people communicate on the internet because she, too,grew up in the internet age.“There\'s nothing that makes you feel older than googling what an emoji means,” she said.













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