Cringe quiz: Are you fluent in Gen-Z office speak?

Find out how well you understand emojis, slang and reactions that your Generation Z colleagues use.

an anatomical drawing of Gen Z texting behavior with common phrases and emojis appearing on a phone

With boomers, Generation X, millennials and Generation Z all in one workplace and increasingly communicating online, some of the quirkiness of each generation has come to light.

The result: the potential for confusion and misinterpretations of what your colleague is saying, especially as younger workers introduce new lingo and expressions.

Avoiding misinterpretations of text and emojis will only become more important as more young professionals, who grew up communicating digitally, enter the workforce. Gen Z workers — defined as those born between 1997 and 2012 — are expected to more than triple in the United States, Australia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and United Kingdom, accounting for 30 percent of total employment by 2030, according to a study by Oxford Economics.

[Gen Z came to ‘slay.’ Their bosses don’t know what that means.]

So let’s put your knowledge to the test. How well do you think you can understand your Gen Z colleagues in the workplace?

Here are six questions based on our conversations with Gen Z workers.

Question 1 of 6

1. Your Gen Z colleague reacts to something you said with 💀. What is this person likely conveying?

Not quite.

For Gen Z, known as “zoomers,” emojis don’t solely carry a literal meaning, said Lieke Verheijen, an assistant professor who studies interpersonal and professional digital communication at Radboud University in the Netherlands.

Gen Z are digital natives who grew up using social media and digital devices to communicate. So they often use emojis for connotations vs. denotation. In this case, the connotation of the skull centers on the idea that the person is “dying from laughter” or that the comment was so funny that the person is dying/dead, she said.

A lot of Gen Z’s humor has a cynical edge, said Roberta Katz, co-author of the book “Gen Z, Explained: The Art of Living in a Digital Age.” So some emoji use, like that of the skull, can have meanings that older colleagues might find odd or confusing. But cynical humor has been a source of bonding for Gen Zers as they deal with economic worries, climate change and gun violence together, Katz added.

Question 2 of 6

2. You assign your Gen Z colleague a task on Slack and end the sentence with a period. What’s risky about this message?

Not quite.

Because Gen Z grew up communicating digitally, the way the generation uses punctuation marks may be different from their elders.

Periods don’t “really serve a purpose anymore,” Verheijen said. “Every single sentence is sent in a separate message so that’s why young people omit this kind of punctuation.”

Generation Z may think the sender made a conscious decision to use a period, and that its purpose may be to convey intonation, Verheijen added. “A full stop may come across as, ‘This is what I’m saying, period.’ And that may sound angry and cold.”

The only punctuation marks that Gen Z still commonly relies on are exclamation and question marks to convey emphasis or inquiry, she said.

In their book, Katz and her colleagues write that people in Gen Z are “mindful that their texts and messages can easily be perceived as sarcastic, rude, or confrontational” so they “avoid ‘shouty’ caps, commas, and full stops.”

Question 3 of 6

3. You say you’re going to be “out of pocket” for a week. Your Gen Z colleague is confused. Why?

Not quite.

You may have thought out of pocket only meant being unavailable for a certain period of time. But not for Gen Z. It has another meaning, suggesting something is inappropriate or wild.

Creative word usage is frequent among young generations, and that occurred even before the digital age, Verheijen said.

Younger generations often develop different meanings for words and expressions, sometimes on purpose and sometimes simply because the words or expressions were not commonly used when they were growing up, said Katz.

Social media made it easier for Gen Z to make new word usage spread across their age group. But in the same way, a word or phrase that may mean one thing today could have a new meaning tomorrow and even a different meaning one year later, experts say. Sometimes meanings come from pop culture like music, movies or even social media influencers.

Question 4 of 6

4. You send an email to a Gen Z colleague asking the person to complete a task. You add a smiley face emoji 🙂 at the end of your paragraph. Your Gen Z colleague becomes worried. Why?

Not quite.

Gen Z often finds greater nuance in different smiley face emojis than their older counterparts, Verheijen said.

The range in different smiley faces offers a diversity in the level of enthusiasm a Gen Z person might express in a text-based message. But the plain smiley face, which on some services automatically converts a colon and closed parenthesis :) into a smiley emoji, doesn’t emit much enthusiasm and could come across as passive aggressive, Verheijen said.

“It looks like it’s only slightly smiling,” she said. “Gen Z interprets that as, ‘Okay, I guess you’re not really happy.’” That could change if a person uses one of the more enthusiastic smiling emojis, like the one with closed eyes and rosy cheeks 😊 or one smiling with an open mouth 😃, she added.

But by using the slightly smiling face, you may be unintentionally expressing uncertainty or a lack of positivity to your Gen Z colleagues.

Question 5 of 6

5. Your Gen Z colleague responds to something you said with a painting nails emoji 💅, what is this person expressing?

Not quite.

Gen Z is going for a nonliteral meaning with the nails emoji.

The manicured hand could have several different nuances including some sort of sass, pettiness or nonchalant confidence.

“You’re doing your nails and not caring about what else is happening,” Verheijen said.

Katz said because so much communication happens online, people don’t get the benefits of hearing someone’s vocal tones or reading body language or facial expressions.

“All of this indicates how your message should be interpreted,” Verheijen said. “Younger people want to compensate for that.”

Because people in Gen Z were early adopters of texting, they learned quickly how to develop and use quick, nonverbal communications cues, which have become helpful, and even necessary, in expressing sentiment and intent, Katz added.

Question 6 of 6

6. Your Gen Z colleague responds to you with the word “slay.” What does this person likely mean?

Not quite.

While you may think slay literally means to kill, Gen Z uses the word much more colloquially.

For Gen Z, slay roughly translates into “killing it,” as in doing something extremely well. Experts compare slay to Gen Z’s use of “out of pocket.”

These are catchphrases that have become cool among their peers, although that likely won’t last the test of time, experts say. The phrases are used more figuratively than literally and are meant to serve as an informal language among young people, Verheijen said.

“These catchphrases at some point are really cool,” she said. “Then 10 years from now, people will think you’re old fashioned.”

About this story

Illustrations, design and development by Emma Kumer. Editing by Yun-Hee Kim, Karly Domb Sadof and Junne Alcantara. Copy editing by Colleen Neely.