What is a like for one, may be an insult for another – online chatting etiquette

Results of first Hungarian emoji survey published

Emojis are used by nearly every Hungarian internet user, yet three out of four have already encountered emojis with an unclear meaning, according to a recent nationwide representative survey. Based on the results, different generations often attribute different meanings to emojis. Is a smiley emoji a nice or a negative response? What do a red flag, a clown or a peach mean? Read on to find out the reasons behind the differences in emoji use.

Understanding online communication including the use of emojis is essential to exploring the communication differences between generations[1]. This is why Yettel’s nationwide representative survey[2] focused on this topic. Based on the results, emojis are used by almost everyone: 70% of the respondents were frequent emoji users. Emojis are most popular with the 26 to 35 age group with use declining with age.

The most common emojis

The most commonly used emojis include the red heart, the smiley face, the face with tears of joy, the face with hearts, and the face blowing a kiss. Interestingly, while the like and the loud crying face are in the top 5 globally, they are less popular in Hungary based on local responses.

“For years, international surveys have been looking at the most commonly used emojis in online communication and how they change in meaning across different age groups. The use of symbols and images plays an increasing important role in the online space for all generations but especially for GenZ, who are considered to be the digital trendsetters. Therefore, it was high time to take a closer look at this phenomenon in Hungary as well”, said media researcher Ádám Guld.

The survey results revealed a clear difference in the use of emojis between generations also in Hungary. While the smiling face with tears of joy is one of the most popular emojis with GenZ, it is much less used by GenX. On the contrary, the thumbs up and the slightly smiling face are the preferred choices for GenX, while they are used by only one in four GenZ users – who associate the like icon with the older generation. The older a user is, the less likely they are to add the same emoji multiple times.

Different meanings across generations

Three out of four respondents have already received an emoji whose meaning was not entirely clear to them. In addition, 50% of GenZ users have had the emoji they sent misunderstood by the recipient. Also, 40% of GenZ users have been insulted or embarrassed due to a misunderstood emoji.

This is no coincidence, as the research also showed that different emojis can have different meanings. The biggest difference was found with the like sign: while three quarters of respondents (76%) interpreted it as approval, 27% of GenZ respondents associated it with a negative meaning (e.g. rejection, insult, “you asked for it”). The traditional slightly smiling face has a similar double meaning: while GenY and GenX users (57%) see it as friendly, cheerful and positive, 45% of GenZ users associate it with a passive-aggressive or negative meaning (“not worth bothering with”).
“Most of the differences in meaning are due to GenZ attributing new meanings to common symbols that are unfamiliar to older generations. The cultural logic behind this phenomenon is that young people are always trying to occupy real-life or symbolic spaces that are not controlled or understood by adults. Emojis with a special meaning serve the same purpose: they create a difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, between the world of young people and the world of adults”, explains Ádám Guld.

Another reason for the difference may be that some emojis are used more often by younger age groups. While 19% of GenX never use the flames emoji and are unsure of its meaning (33%) or believe it has something to do with hot temperatures (19%), GenZ use it at least occasionally in the sense of “cool”. There is a generational difference also in the interpretation of the peach emoji: while GenX (26%) and GenY (47%) see it as a reference to fruit, the vast majority of GenZ users (69%) associate it with a woman’s bottom. Interestingly, younger age groups use the clown emoji when making a mistake, the skull for something very funny and the red flag for a dealbreaker – while GenX are not really aware of these connotations.

[1] Age definitions of the different generations used in the survey: Z: 16-24, Y: 25-44, X: 45-65
[2] The survey was conducted on a sample of 1,006 people in the period between March 14 and 25 2024. The sample was representative of the Hungarian population aged 16 to 65 in terms of age, sex, region, type of settlement and education. (Impetus Research)