Dubai: One afternoon in 2016, I received a smiley face emoji under one of my WeChat Moments post. WeChat Moments is a Chinese social media platform that is similar to Facebook, but the post generated anxiety in me. The emoji was followed by a sentence that screamed sarcasm. It was clear that my post had offended the emoji sender.
I had to get back to him to understand why he was offended. While it turned out to be a misinterpretation of my post on his side, the negative emotions associated with this emoji stayed with me.
Not all smiley face emojis, apparently, convey pleasant messages to a Gen Z receiver. Understanding the difference will save you some trouble when you send or receive messages to or from a Chinese Gen Z person.
Two smiley face emojis that don’t mean what they mean
WeChat, the dominant daily messaging app in China, has two emoji systems – one being its own system, another being the one that’s found on our phones. We are talking about its own system, which shares some commonality with its alternative, however has a cultural twist to it.
Here are the two smiley face emojis that should make you worry when you receive them:
According to emojipedia.org, a website providing information on emojis, the English language emoji shortcodes used for these two emojis on WeChat are 'Smile' and 'Bye'. Only the interpretation in reality is far from it – essentially, what they mean depends on which generation is using or receiving them. Gulf News spoke to Chinese expats to find out.
The Gen Z generation
If I were to receive them from someone in my generation, I would understand them as ‘I don’t like talking to you, so let’s end the conversation right now’.
Currently a university student in Dubai, Shiqi Li was born in 2003. The 20-year-old said that she rarely used the two emojis. “They feel like something the older generation would send to us. In another word, they are not quite in line with the characters of our generation. If I were to receive them from someone in my generation, I would understand them as ‘I don’t like talking to you, so let’s end the conversation right now’.”
Li is not alone, her friend Jia Tang from the same university thinks the same, “I dislike these emojis. They might mean regular smiley faces for my mum’s generation, but for me, it means ‘rigidness’ and ‘seriousness’, which is the opposite of being fun. If someone sends me this emoji during a conversation, I would think that I’ve done something wrong to upset that person. The emojis create distances between me and the person I talk to.
“Although, it doesn’t mean that I never use them. I do, but only in the form of a joke, among friends who I know very well. For example, if my friend says something crazy, I would send these emojis to them to let them know that ‘it’s ridiculous’, but not in a negative way.”
Aoran Jiang was born in the 1990s, while he has mixed feelings about these two emojis, he chooses not to use them to avoid misunderstandings. “They can mean just a friendly smile. However, given that the majority of my generation thinks they carry sarcasm, I avoid using them in conversations, unless it’s for teasing purposes among friends. My parents often send them to me though, and they mean a smile.”
Lei Qiao, a Dubai-based photography director, was born in 1987. The 36-year-old sends the two emojis often as a way to say ‘hi’ to others. “Personally, they don’t mean anything bad. I greet people with them. Frankly, I didn’t even know that the [Bye] emoji meant saying goodbye – I thought it meant saying ‘hi’ by waving at someone.
However, I understand why the later generations prefer not to use them. They are the generations who seek for trendy, lively and cool things.
“However, I understand why the later generations prefer not to use them. They are the generations who seek for trendy, lively and cool things. For us, or for me at least, I focus on practicality. We are at an age where career and stability are vital to us, so when we have a conversation with others, we prefer to get to the point directly, instead of worrying about which emoji is more popular to use - it’s just more efficient.”
By this point, you would have gathered that baby boomers, who are the parents of Gen Z and late Millennials, have no issue with sending these emojis. To them, they mean what they mean, nothing else.
Why Gen Z and late Millennials dislike the two smiley emojis
“Don’t you think the design of the emoji looks a little stiff?” Li asked, “The eyes are widely open, the pupils are looking down, as if there is no muscle movement involved in this smile. To me, it represents a forced smile in real life.”
“I do use smiley faces, but not this one. I use a smiley face where the eyes are crescent-moon shaped and the face is blushing. It’s more amiable. It shortens the distance between people,” explains Tang.
What I think happened was, someone in my generation, or slightly older, started using these emojis in a mocking way, then everyone just followed afterwards.
To Jiang, the two emojis didn’t always have bad connotations. He thinks that somewhere along the way, it became popular to regard them as negative emojis. “Much like other changing language phenomenon with time, both emojis and words can have different meanings in separate times. What I think happened was, someone in my generation, or slightly older, started using these emojis in a mocking way, then everyone just followed afterwards.”
Should you avoid sending these emojis?
It depends. You can send them to people who are in their 40s and above. In general, they will perceive it as a friendly gesture.
For late Millennials and Gen Z, it’s better not using them. However, if you are from a different cultural background, they will likely understand that you are unaware of the negativity associated with these emojis - you have a special pass.
How to send messages to different generation Chinese
Straight-to-the-point messages to early Millennials
“We prefer direct communication,” says Qiao, who is 36 years of age, “You don’t have to be diplomatic. If you have a lot to say, it’s okay to use voice messaging, or even call us. You can use emojis, but if it’s a more serious occasion, you might want to choose emojis that are appropriate and don’t carry strong emotions.”
A combination of words, emojis and stickers to late Millennials
Jiang, 28 years of age, likes to receive messages with a combination of words, emojis and stickers. “It’s better to enrich words with emojis and stickers, because the same words can mean different things – you need to express where you stand by adding emojis and stickers – they help to indicate your emotions.”
More stickers for Gen Z
According to Li and Tang, both 20 years of age, you should also use a combination of words, emojis and stickers, however, perhaps more stickers than emojis. “I use a lot of stickers,” says Tang. “If you want to send voice messages, make sure you know the receiver well, otherwise, it’s recommended that you type.”
(Note: Story first published on September 20, 2023)