Why Do Dads Communicate Exclusively via Thumbs Up Emojis?

“If I ever tell him I'm pregnant, I will get a thumb.”
A dad surrounded by thumbs up emojis
Collage: Owain Anderson, image via Alamy

“I wish I had my old phone to show you just how much he responds with a singular thumb. If I ever tell him I'm pregnant, I will get a thumb,” my friend Beth tells me, after hearing that I am undertaking the very important endeavour of finding out why older gents simply love the thumbs up emoji.


For anyone who has a father figure who gave into the technological revolution and has a smartphone, and therefore emoji access, we know in our souls that Beth is not exaggerating in any way. I, for one, cannot wait to send my dad a pic in my wedding dress and receive the pixelated thumb back in response.

When asking Beth’s grandad why he loves using the thumbs up emoji in lieu of language, he surmises the reason being “I’m an idle git.” Pete, 68, a retired civil servant with two adult children, also considers the emoji as a time saver, commenting that “it expresses something in a simple image that would take much longer to type out in words.”

But 39-year-old Dan (also a father to two, but far from retired) disagrees. He feels that finding and pressing the thumbs up emoji to send in response takes longer than typing a brief affirmative like “ok” or “sure”, yet Dan says he opts for the thumb for humour reasons rather than ease.

“When you just send the thumb, it appears on WhatsApp as a larger emoji, which just adds to it being hilarious to me and having a slightly sarcastic vibe,” he explains. “My dad uses it a lot too and despite him using it in a sincere way, I just think it's funny.” On the younger end of the dad spectrum, Dan’s tongue-in-cheek use plays into the typical dad trope of using the emoji as a response, rather than actually seeing it as a legitimate reply.


Emojis, including the thumbs up one, have been a part of our digital communication since the 1990s, when they existed on chat rooms. Eventually, they made their way to messaging platforms and texting. With language ever evolving, the adoption of emojis to fully replace certain words makes logical sense. Perhaps we are underestimating the middle-aged man’s ability to keep up with the times.

“Emojis have become a quick, easier way to communicate, especially for those who find it hard to hold conversations,” Zoe Mallett, an Accredited Coach, MSc Psychologist and Culture Consultant, says over email.

But, Mallet adds, the thumbs up emoji in particular has a contextual negativity associated with it. It's simple, yes, but to younger people it can also seem a little unenthusiastic and even sarcastic. When we're used to responding to our friends with the skull emoji to show that what they've said is so funny that we're now literally dead, the thumbs up feels… odd. “The thumbs up can come across as passive-aggressive or that the conversation is not being treated with respect, especially if the conversation has a serious topic and the conversation has been had using words.”

This interpretation of being blasé, however, is a nuanced one built from years of engaging with internet culture and probably not intended by a 50 year old dad replying to his kid’s weird meme in the family group chat. Mallet mentions that middle aged men’s communication skills are often pretty different to those raised on the internet, for instance, so it makes sense that they might not quite 'get' the strange, multi-layered, potentially sardonic context behind a pixel thumbs up.


That said, for the kids of the parents who do partake in using this particular emoji, receiving a thumbs up is rarely seen as negative. “I honestly find it very funny in a stereotypical dad kind of way. You can't give an affirming or doubtful grunt over messenger.” Mollie, 28, enthuses about her 64-year-old father’s emoji use. “I enjoy it. Sometimes I ask even more questions after the initial thumbs up just to see how many I can get before he gives up. It's like I can hear him sighing in the ether.”

It seems as though the dads who love the thumbs up emoji sincerely are the older dads, who love the emoji for its simplicity in communication. It’s the kind of dad who would, in real life, chuck you a thumbs up from his seat at your graduation, and you know in your heart that it means “I love you” without needing to be said out loud. And for the younger dads, getting to use the thumbs up emoji is a rite of passage.

Will – a 43-year-old dad to a 6-year-old – looks forward to the day that he can text her “loads of funny animal gifs, laboured jokes and, of course, thumbs up emojis.” For this generation, the (Y) has become an emblem of what being a dad is really about for some lucky people – being an embarrassing git, but a loving one really.