Take note, Stephen Donnelly: the ‘thumbs up’ emoji is the most passive-aggressive of all

Tony Holohan texted that Covid-19 infection was rising in Dublin. Donnelly sent a thumbs-up

There are some emojis that, in a business conversation at least, should never see the light of day.

Among them the aubergine emoji (obvs), the turd emoji (because you are not five) and the love-hearts-for-eyes emoji (or, at least, under a very, very specific and limited set of circumstances).

The “thumbs up” emoji may look like  harmless enough, but rest assured it is the most passive-aggressive of all the emojis at your disposal. It’s a dismissive kiss-off, meted out with a single flick of the finger.

What you are basically saying to the thumbs-up emoji's recipient is: 'This conversation is over for me. Do what you want here'

It’s a close cousin of the middle-finger emoji, for people not brave enough to use the middle-finger emoji. It’s a way to shut down a conversation without explicitly silencing them. It’s telling the other person to “bugger off” while still hoping to seem polite (which incidentally, you don’t).


What you are basically saying to the thumbs-up emoji’s recipient is: “This conversation is over for me. Do what you want here.”

Far be it from me to put words into the mouth, or even thumbs, of Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly, but it turns out that this is one of his emojis du choix.

On October 12th the Chief Medical Officer, Dr Tony Holohan, texted Donnelly to say that the number of Covid-19 cases in Dublin was on the rise and to advise him to be cautious in public messages about the virus in the capital. (Donnelly had said on radio that transmission was slowing in Dublin and that the outlook appeared “positive”).

When Holohan reiterated the seriousness of the situation some days later, texting Donnelly that the “R” number in Dublin had increased (not exactly good news), Donnelly replied with a single thumbs-up emoji.

Let’s pause this scene for a moment, and step outside it, Matrix-style. Did Donnelly really mean to give the CMO the brush-off? Is he a simply a busy man for whom brevity is key? Did he realise in the moment that this was an inappropriate response to a professional correspondence? Or is he just hopelessly out of touch with the nebulous contexts of each emoji?

If you are going to let an emoji – any emoji – do the grunt work for you in a conversation, you'd really better know what you're getting yourself into

Whatever his inner thoughts or motives, news of the exchange is doing nothing to dispel the niggling sense some have that Donnelly's personal brand runs towards the smug and the snarky.

When the exchange was reported over the weekend, in the Sunday Independent, Donnelly's wayward emoji use didn't go unnoticed. In fact – look, people are bored – a meme appears to have been born. After Donnelly tweeted yesterday about Ireland's progress on the vaccine front, thousands of people simply replied with a single thumbs-up emoji. (Were they trying to say, "Yes, you're still talking, but we're not really listening?" I suppose you'd have to ask them.)

We are living in strange and different and, yes, unprecedented times. Now that we are all social distancing and staring into our phones, tone of voice and body language have been swept aside, for the ease of the emoji.

According to a study by Swyft media, more than six billion emojis are sent around the world every day. (People in the United States are thought to send around 96 each a day).

But, as with Gifs, if you are going to let an emoji – any emoji – do the grunt work for you in a conversation, you’d really better know what you’re getting yourself into.

If you bandy about emojis in your conversations, just be aware of their not-inconsiderable might. They may be one character on your phone or keyboard, but they are loaded with meaning (oftentimes, multiple meanings, depending on the context).

For future reference, the folded hands emoji denotes praying, not a high-five. The dead emoji (two Xs for eyes) is meant to express shock. The raised-hand emoji is never to be used, including and especially if you work within sniffing distance of the Dáil.

In any case, the whole fandango somehow reminds me of David Cameron's smartphone blunder, where he reportedly believed the acronym LOL to mean "lots of love", and splashed it about liberally, most notably in texts to former tabloid editors.

There’s a very good chance that Donnelly will rue the day he relied on the most pass-agg of all of the emojis to do the talking for him. Not strictly because of its impact on relations with Holohan, but mainly because he is very likely to see an awful lot of them on his Twitter feed from here on in. To which the only appropriate response is… well, the grimace emoji.