What’s up with passive-aggressive emoticons and cancel culture in the workplace?

As easy as they are to send, a passive-aggressive emoji can be extremely obnoxious to receive. But are thumbs-up emojis really passive-aggressive?

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Communication is an interesting and intrinsic part of being human. The ability to communicate effectively using language is something we can only do because of the development of the wonderful (and sometimes sadistic) thing we call a brain. But for communication to be clear, it needs a sender, a receiver, a medium and a context. Without context, all words have no meaning. So what happens when you take text messages (a medium that is inherently voiceless and toneless) and add images (which have their own voice and people provide their own tone)? Nothing too good it seems.


Emojis or “picture characters” in Japanese appeared in Japan in the late 90s as part of text-based communication. The phenomenon only made a global breakthrough in 2011, when all teenagers who could work with a phone started using them as a means of communication. 838 emojis are commonly used today. Whether or not they are an effective form of communication is a subject of much debate, because although there are clear emotions displayed with the images, the tone behind them can vary depending on the context. It’s not the emoji that’s the problem, it turns out, but the interpretation (or rather misinterpretation) of the tone that is. Texting is a form of communication that has little tone when not clearly injected, and when communication is absent of tone, a recipient will often apply their own (which is usually incorrect).

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What Using Emojis Reveals About You

There are many interpretations of what using emojis says about you, and apparently Gen Z people think it makes a person look old and out of touch (according to Prospectus Global).

According to a Tel Aviv University survey, emojis make you appear less powerful to the person you send them to, because “using images signals a greater desire for social closeness.” I can see why this might be a problem in the workplace, but in the rest of the social context, why is this a problem? “In some situations, particularly in a work or business environment, [sending emojis] can be costly, as it signals low power. So a lawyer might not want to use emojis when talking to clients or other lawyers, but that’s just basic texting etiquette, right? You would be surprised.

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Gen Z opinion on emoticons

Cancel culture seems to be coming for those who use passive-aggressive emojis, and the emojis themselves, as a survey of 2,000 people aged 16-29 asked about their use of emojis and what they feel for others. Respondents sent an average of 80 emojis per week, and 22% of respondents said they used multiple emojis in a text to make a message clearer so there was no possibility of misunderstanding.

According to Yahoo News, the ten worst emojis are the grimacing face (the wide-toothed smile that isn’t quite a smile), the kiss mark, the clapping hands, the monkey eye patch (the monkey sees ), loudly crying face, poo emoji, check mark, ‘Ok’ hand, red heart, and worst of all is the thumbs up (declared a passive-aggressive emoji). The thumbs-up emoji has been called unfriendly and rude, equivocal compared to the new “K” our parents hated so much.

While the problem behind emojis could easily be turned into a generational problem, it isn’t, the problem is that they’re far too easy to misunderstand.

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Passive-aggressive workplace emojis

Professor Vyvyan Evans, the author of The emoji codesays that “A common misconception is that an emoji is the equivalent of a teenage growl, a throwback to the dark ages of illiteracy, making us poorer communicators in the process – perhaps – be even dumber.”

There is a time and a place for all things. When it comes to talking to your friends who have a similar mindset or who can pick up on the nuances of your conversation, easily understand your tone, an emoji may not be inappropriate. In a business environment, where clear communication is a necessary part of a cohesive team, perhaps opt for clarity. Emojis are social tools. Know when to use them, when they’re appropriate, and when to avoid them for the clearest communication possible.

Do you agree with the cancel culture that emojis (and passive-aggressive emojis) age the person using them? Or are you on the side that thinks it’s a tool that can be used effectively in the right contexts? Let us know which side of the coin you sit on.

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