Like the eggplant, the thumb emoji has a double meaning


On digital tools, emojis have gradually integrated written language, whether for our discussions with friends, or in the professional world. Collaborative tools, such as Slack or Trello, integrate these symbols into their conversation channels. And in 2019, a study by Adobe showed that you should use it, even in professional emails.

But if using emojis makes it possible to communicate an idea more quickly, it is also a double-edged sword. Indeed, before using these symbols, it is important to understand that some may have a double meaning.

For example, and you already know it, the eggplant emoji is to be absolutely avoided. What you might not know is that even the basic thumbs-up emoji can lead to misunderstanding.

Young people wouldn’t be comfortable with a thumbs up

If you’re Gen X, chances are the thumbs-up emoji is a form of validation for you. A person can send this symbol instead of writing “It’s good!”

However, among the Z (those born between 1997 and 2010, according to the definition relayed by Wikipedia) and part of the generation Y, this raised thumb can be interpreted as a hostile response. This double meaning of the thumbs-up emoji was recently brought to light in a conversation on the Reddit forum, which was subsequently relayed by English-language media.

“Am I not adult enough to be comfortable with the ‘thumbs up’ emoji reaction?”, headlines the post that sparked this conversation about emojis, on Reddit. The author says he’s started a new “adult” job, where people give each other thumbs up on Microsoft Teams. He admits that he is not comfortable.

In the comments, some people indicate that it is a form of validation. A person responds for example that the raised thumb means “I approve”, “I understand and I will obey” or “I accept”.

But for others, it is indeed a passive-aggressive reaction, or an indirect way of expressing hostility. Or, the thumb can be interpreted as an expression of indifference.

“It’s super rude if someone just sends you a thumbs up,” comments a user who indicates to be 24 years old, and who evokes a difference of culture between generations.

You might regret it

If the exchange on Reddit has brought the debate about the thumbs-up back into the news, it should be noted that this double meaning is not new. And using a thumbs-up can really lead to big misunderstandings, with consequences that can be significant.

An example ? An exchange between Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer at the time, was published by a media outlet in 2021. According to The Irish Times, the Chief Medical Officer reportedly told the minister that infections of COVID-19 are on the rise. Stephen Donnelly reportedly responded with a thumbs up. And it was a scandal.

“The ‘thumbs up’ emoji may seem harmless enough, but it’s the most passive-aggressive of all the emojis available to you. It’s a disdainful kiss, with the flick of a finger.” commented the very serious Irish Time, at the time.

On Twitter, the minister also drew the wrath of Internet users. Some responded to his tweets with a thumbs-up.

Later, Stephen Donnelly explained in an interview that it was shorthand for saying “thank you”. The meaning of his thumbs-up was apparently clear in the private conversation between colleagues, but once the exchange was published, the emoji was interpreted differently by public opinion.

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