The Old Person's Guide to Emojis

Samantha Coggin

September 1, 2017

Samantha Coggin

September 1, 2017

I guess you can’t technically “speak” Emoji. But that doesn’t make it any less of a language. After all, sign language is a language and hieroglyphics served as a language, and you couldn’t technically “speak" those either. Like these, Emoji is a visual language. In fact, it’s the fastest evolving language in the Western world. Ever since hieroglyphics, our abstract human brains have learned to interpret images as expressions of emotion and instruction. But then again, our “abstract brains” have also turned images of eggplants (🍆) into a universal phallic symbol…so how developed are we, really?

Actually, that’s the whole point of this article: because we are so capable of abstract thought, not everyone interprets images the same way.

However, we do all tend to gravitate towards the same Emojis, as can be seen on this Emoji tracking website that allows us to spot Emoji trends in real time. This tracker is helpful because it gives us some insight into how Emojis are becoming a more common language, and which Emoji’s are most widely understood and used. So while we often interpret images in different ways, some Emojis actually are universally understood, or at least applicable in a variety of different cultures and/or situations.

So, where did these adorable little images come from?

Oh, come on, you can’t deny their irresistible cuteness. Emoji’s originated in Japan and the Emoji’s that our iOS devices, Androids, Facebook’s, etc. provide us with today often originally meant something very different than what we now interpret them to mean.

Let’s take this one, for example: 💁

To many of us, this appears to be a woman fixing her hair or flipping her hand in a way that portrays popularity, sassiness, egoism. Originally, however, it was meant to be a woman working at an information desk, asking something along the lines of “how can I help you?”. (A quite selfless Emoji actually...)

And there are plenty more like this. Emoji interpretation varies amongst cultures and demographic groups. This can create awkwardness if you’re messaging with your parents (or kids), grandparents (or grandkids), co-workers, bosses, etc. With time and usage, however, each Emoji is taking it’s shape, taking a common meaning and intention. And we’re here to set that meaning straight, because we’re sick of our moms sending us 🙏 before bed with the text “Goodnight - don’t forget to say your prayers!”, when really all I’m seeing is the two of us saying goodnight and then high-fiving before falling asleep.

Get It Straight: Emoticon vs. Emoji

So, let’s start - first and foremost - by clearing up one big confusion: emoticons and Emojis are not the same thing.

In his article, “Don't know the difference between emoji and emoticons? Let me explain.”, technology reporter at The Guardian, Alex Hern, puts it simply and clearly:

An emoticon is a typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. Like so:   


Hern goes on to explain that the name “emoticon” is a conjunction of the two words “emotion” and “icon” and that an Emoji is an actual picture, rather than text creatively aligned to illustrate an image. So now that that’s cleared up, let’s talk about Emojis.

What Means What?

Below, we’ve put together a list of the most ambiguous Emoji’s, or the ones that people most often misuse or don’t understand. Beside them, we explain what they predominantly mean in today’s Western world, when to use them, and - perhaps most importantly - when not to use them.



When To Use (Or Not)


Tears of joy

This is today’s most popularly used Emoji. However, it’s often misused for genuine, sad tears. So be careful: if your friend messages you saying their dog died, don’t reply with this Emoji unless you want to lose all your friends.



The “Open Hand Emoji” is originally meant to signify “openness”. Today, however, it means quite the opposite. So if your boss sends you a long message about a big project, it’s probably not best to respond with this one. You’re not welcoming his or her idea or needs, you’re telling them to shut up already.



This is a tough one because on iOS it looks quite different than what the grimacing face looks like on other devices. On other devices, it’s meant to be a face so smiley that it’s baring teeth. However, it’s most commonly used today to mean “oops” or “eek” or “uncomfortable”. Probably not best to use if trying to express that something went well. Your recipient will probably take it to mean quite the opposite.



...but not in a chill way. Although this guy looks chill, he’s worried. As the recipient, you’ve probably said something wrong or unfavorable. As the sender, you’re disappointed in what the other just said or did. Don’t use this to express tranquility.



Just...don’t send this to your boss. Or your mom. Or you brother. Or your kids.



Also don’t send this to your boss. It means literally nothing besides poop+smiley face = poop smiley face.

Pointing Up

This is not a mother wagging her finger in her child’s face to say “no, don’t do that.” So if you’re a mother, refrain from using it this way when texting your kids, because how they will read it is: my mother either a) has a question or b) thinks she’s number one. Which, maybe she is. But I doubt that’s what she’s saying here - unless your mom is super with it.



Sure, this flexing bicep could mean physical strength. But more fashionably, it means you’re ‘winning’ aka being awesome, doing awesome things, staying ahead of the game, getting rich, or getting ahead in life. It does NOT mean the gesture one might associate with the phrase “Why I oughtta…”


Rock on

This does not mean “I’ll take two of those, please”. But it does mean “getting going, you rock, rock on, go you”.



Peace. Not hate. Simple as that.


Fist bump

It’s like the cool version of a high-five. It’s not someone taking a swing at you.


Good luck


We’re tight!

Just like you’d mean it in person: good luck, or best wishes! Could also mean that you and someone else are super tight (aka close friends or that you just get each other).

If you’re feeling super confident in your Emoji skills, try taking the language to the next level by combining several Emojis to create full phrases. Here are some existing examples but for you fluent Emoji users out there, you can always create your own personalized sentences as well.

💭🙆💭  =  Head in the clouds

😈🔥⬅️🏃  =  Go to hell

⏰🐷✈️  = When pigs can fly

Look, we’re not saying you have to use any Emoji is any particular way. All we’re saying is be careful of which Emojis you’re using, when you’re using them, how you’re using them, and - most importantly - who you’re them with. Our brains catch on quickly, but this language is still relatively new to us and developing more each day. So stay fluent before it’s too late. And good luck out there in Emoji world.


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