how to speak emoji in 2021

So you thought you’d shave a few years off your social media age by using not words (Words! Ha! How fusty) but emojis to respond to the hilarious meme your friend forwarded. No need to waste time typing out “that’s hilarious” when you could spend several minutes scrolling through emojis to find the right one, then settle for the cry-laughing face you use to punctuate absolutely everything.

Well sorry (soz), but there’s bad news for you if you’re over 30 and believed your habit of sprinkling all communications with colourful emoji confetti would somehow make you seem cooler, younger, more in touch with the zeitgeist. More sick. More dope. (Do people still say those words? Must remember to check what they mean.) Anyway, back to the bad news. The rules have changed. Again. 

I know, I know, it’s not fair. You thought you understood the game because you’d worked out which innocent-looking emojis really signified genitalia and which didn’t (for now). But those wily Gen Zers have only gone and declared war on the smiley face. 

That’s right, the one you thought was untouchable; the one that could never come to signify a male appendage without you realising. The one that would surely only ever do what it said on the tin. A smiley face is a smiley face is a smiley face. Right?


According to laws devised by God knows who, in God knows which teenage bedroom, a smiley face emoji deployed in a text or email can come across as patronising or passive-aggressive to teens and 20-somethings.

Why? There are no answers. Only further questions, such as: who invents this stuff? Why can I not keep up when only a few years ago I was in my 20s too? What are we meant to use instead of the smiley face? 

Look, don’t ask me, I’m 38. I can’t even work out how to cancel my Now TV subscription, now that I’ve watched the Friends reunion. No, if you want to ask anyone, ask Hafeezat Bishi, the 21-year-old who told The Wall Street Journal of her surprise when she started an internship at a digital media firm in Brooklyn and was greeted by colleagues with the smiley face emoji. She saw it not as friendly but dismissive, but reasoned: “I had to remember they are older, because I use it sarcastically. There are so many emojis, and Gen Z can never take things in a simple manner.”

If there’s an emoji that means “Why do semiotics have to be so confusing when life is hard enough?” I’d like to know where to find it. In the meantime, here is your by-no-means-fully-up-to-date guide to using emojis in 2021.