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What's the deal with the :thumbsup: '👍' emoji?

As an ideographic representation of a well-known (if not universal gesture). It (the emoji) presumably means in English speaking culture an approval or acknowledgement.

"bus late on my way home"

"👍"

Yet, lately I'm hearing that '👍' can be perceived pragmatically as slightly sarcastic:

"I love my new shoes"

"👍"

And here is a small sample of many articles written over the past few years:

Thumbs up considered rude/hostile

Thumbs up emoji considered passive-aggressive

Why you should stop using the thumbs up emoji

  • Is that right or is sarcasm not really part of the meaning of the emoji and is just inferred from the context?
  • Is the change similar to periods (including a period at the end of a sentence is considered a bit authoritarian in chat).
  • Is sarcasm part of the semantics of a word or is it social context? or both?
  • And most importantly if thumbsup is sincere only for older users (where older could easily be >25 yo), is there a replacement? Is there something to write to use as a plain acknowledgement?

There are copious articles -saying- there's a change in meaning, but actual use, 'in the wild' uses of the emoji (dated quotations of people's typing), would be very welcome.

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    Is this about the English language? Is there a factual answer or is this primarily a matter of opinion? What exactly do you want to know that isn't in the links you post or several similar media stories?
    – Stuart F
    Oct 18, 2022 at 14:31
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    Isn't this the same thing as any number of words that rising generations redefine and make their own - 'sick', 'grim'... . The underlying meaning remains but the contemporary twist is purposely intended to create a sense of (minority) bonding.
    – Dan
    Oct 18, 2022 at 14:49
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    Meaning is in the age of the speaker. Verb: to be mean. haha. It's really generational and I refuse to be held hostage by a bunch of kids.
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2022 at 15:13
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    My 30-year-old daughter sometimes replies '👍' in Whatsapp to mean Message received and understood even if the preceding message was actually conveying "bad news". But that's only if the preceding message was "isolated" (not part of an ongoing "conversation"). If we were actually interacting she'd probably read the message more carefully and choose a different emoji if what I'd said was "negative" in some way. Oct 18, 2022 at 16:48
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    Just about anything can be sarcastic.
    – Davo
    Oct 19, 2022 at 15:59

3 Answers 3

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Tentatively, yes, the thumbs up emoji may be increasingly perceived as dismissive or sarcastic. However, much like the original gesture, that usage is dependent on context. At least right now, the thumbs up is often understood as an affirmative in work contexts, even if the perception among younger folk is slowly changing.

The Thumbs Up Gesture Can Be Sarcastic Based on Context

One thing to consider is that the thumbs up emoji formed by analogy to the gesture of giving a thumbs up. Even that gesture (giving a thumbs up) could be construed as approving or acknowledging as well as sarcastic or dismissive depending on context, as this still from a widely-disseminated gif featuring actor Jennifer Lawrence demonstrates:

enter image description here

In the gif (from a 2012 interview), she mouths "Okay" and gives a thumbs up with a non-plussed expression, presumably to something shouted from the crowd. In that example, there is a strong argument that the sarcastic meaning comes more from context than anything else, similar to how "Yes" can be made sarcastic using verbal tone. So context strongly influences the specific meaning of the gesture. (For an academic analysis that determines how the thumbs up is largely positive but dependent on context, see Sherzer, 1991.)

The Thumbs Up Emoji Has Less Context and May Still Be Sarcastic

The emoji may retain that flexibility of use, but its meaning in context can be more difficult to parse because other context cues are absent. There is no vocal tone, facial expression, or other cue if someone only sends 👍. There is only the previous conversation and guesses as to how the previous message could be received. That may make the emoji more prone to change or reinterpretation by audiences.

In a recent NPR story about the thumbs up gesture (Ayesha Rascoe, "The Final Word: Is the Thumbs-Up Emoji Dead?" Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR, 16 October 2022), Susan Herring, a linguistics professor at Indiana University, points out that the connotations of the emoji are fluid and perhaps generational:

I think the battle here is really about the connotations of the emoji, the pragmatic meanings. And those are fluid. [...] It's characteristic of what young people do with language. They're always generating new expressions and new words and new ways of speaking to distinguish themselves in opposition to other groups that are perceived as being out of it or square, as we used to say back in the day.

Roscoe acknowledges both that the articles coming out this week are perhaps clickbait (they're drumming up a big controversy over something minor) and that they are touching a real nerve. Young people may indeed view the emoji as dismissive much more often than other generations, but it has long had potential use for sarcasm (see this Thrillist list from 2016). And it's hardly dead, as Herring and Roscoe both acknowledge. For instance, it still lives in the workplace.

Workplaces Still Commonly Suggest Using the Thumbs Up

As far as what to use, at least at work, the thumbs up emoji is still sometimes recommended. Here is Microsoft's own guide to chat etiquette in the workplace:

Use sentiment and reactions appropriately. The thumbs-up button—often thought of as the “like” button—can help you close the loop on conversations faster, with less back-and-forth. Use it to convey “understood,” “okay,” or “will do.” Use the “love,” “laugh,” “wow,” “cry,” or “mad” sentiments more sparingly, depending on your team’s norms.

Acknowledge receipt. Use the thumbs-up or “like” button to let others know that you got or agree with their message.

Harvard Business Review in an article from last May (Tomoko Yokoi, Jennifer Jordan, "Using Emojis to Connect with Your Team") similarly recommends the thumbs up in the workplace as one less likely to offend than more complex and thus fluidly-interpreted emojis:

If you are new or hesitant to using emojis in the workplace, we advise starting with simple emojis (e.g., thumbs up) rather than emojis that represent complex emotions (e.g. laughing emojis with tears) in order to decrease the likelihood that an emoji will offend.

Despite the possible misperceptions of even the thumbs up emoji, it is still an often-recommended tool for use in workplace contexts. View the emoji at work rather like other generational slang; young workers generally adapt to what older colleagues use, even if they sometimes joke about you saying "cool" or "boss" in private. As they learn the workplace context, they'll learn that receiving a thumbs up emoji is okay, until the thumbs up either becomes standardized in their use or they spread a work-sanitized version of their slang.

As for outside work? If you want to avoid the emoji, you may be stuck adding more words (and thus more context) to make sure that your intentions are not missed. But much like the emoji, it will depend on your audience and context whether "Sounds good," "I'll do it," or some other phrase will work.

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  • That Jennifer Lawrence meme is classic - that could easily be where the sarcastic use (IRL) started and migrated to text. Or it could easily be the other way round, and she was expressing IRL something she had experience in while texting.
    – Mitch
    Oct 20, 2022 at 19:59
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I love this question, but I'm not sure emoji fit into the realm of "English Language and Usage." As you point out, thumbs up has a well known universal meaning of approval - good job, way to go, etc.

In your examples, it can also be used to mean simply, "ok, I understand." E.G. - On the way home, bus is late - with a response of "👍" meaning - "ok, got it."

Finally, as with ordinary language, it can be used for sarcasm. If someone shares some banal news - "I got new shoes" and you respond with "👍" - it may be a way of saying "wow, great job," in a sarcastic manner.

TL;DR - like many things in language, it can be used to mean different things in different contexts, and because it's an emoji, the intent can be even more difficult to understand than text.

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    re: universal - in some Middle Eastern countries, thumbs up is a gesture similar to the US middle finger (see the link for 'not universal gesture)
    – Mitch
    Oct 19, 2022 at 17:20
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To preface, let me dispel some qualms you may have about the subject. Emojis, a fully deliberate invention on top of emoticons, which were themselves creations by individuals (provenance disputed), because they are ideographic, are presumably gestures in pictures and therefore alinguistic. But because of their technological form, ideographs with Unicode character codes, this allows them to be inserted as characters in computer text (yes, this is not yet English but it is now judgeable as linguistic). As text elements, they are popularly used in informal circumstances as interjections. Not just text punctuation but fulfilling the criteria of that part of speech. Unicode characters have labels and the labels for Unicode emojis are substantive. That these labels are in used in English text does not make them English.

What makes them analyzable in English -as interjective words- is that they are used by people writing English in that English. It's as though they are borrowings from a foreign language, they've -become- English. Well, they can and have been borrowed into other written languages, but I am only asking here with respect to English writing culture, and asking about one particular emoji's usage within English. Also there's copious linguistic inquiry into emoji's. That doesn't make them definitely linguistic, but surely more so than gestures or punctuation.

Emojis are only used in very informal writing and are reasonably proscribed from most written public media like newspapers (though some respectable academic papers have had titles written using them).

Like much slang, they are very informal, they're way too culturally biased, they label vague concepts, and frankly don't cover quite the semantic range they could be good for (where are all the universal emotion faces for disgust, . But we have to recognize that they do correspond to meanings as though they are words, though as stated they function more like interjections.

Presumably one could collect thousands of instances of uses of '👍' (in context) in the wild and do a semantic analysis on them to get an answer based on data that would corroborate (or refute, or neither) the impressions described in those three media articles (which are three out of many).

With that out of the way as laborious justification that this is a reasonable question to ask here, I'll just cut to the chase and say there's no good answer for '👍'. In general, emojis are just too recent to have a consistent low variation meaning ascribed to them. (some emojis have very particular and non-literal meanings though that developed quite quickly).

For now (2022) '👍' the sarcasm is just too vague to reliably say that the aggressive meaning is 'the' primary meaning, which is to say that the sarcasm or negation of the positive meaning is not a feature of the word itself but a feature of the context. But you should be aware when using it that it may be aggressive instead of simply an acknowledgment.

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