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Intergenerational communication is commonplace and problematic

People of different generations interacting at work

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A texting miscommunication

It seems the tiniest things cause miscommunication these days. A period—just a digital dot in a text conversation—caused someone I have a great relationship with to call me out as negative.

Older generations see punctuation as grammar-related, but Millennials and younger (people who came of age or were born with the internet, online chatting, and texting) use punctuation for nuance. (Likewise for emojis: For me, the winks and blinks are fun to tack on to a text, but other generations convey meaning through them¾meanings I’m not privy to.)

I found this out a couple years ago, when, during a text conversation with my Millennial son, David, he abruptly asked me why I was being negative.

I was surprised. “I’m not being negative. What do you mean?”

“Well, you put a period at the end of all your sentences,” David replied. 

“What are you talking about? There was no emotion to that. I just put a period at the end.”

David and I worked through the miscommunication without issue, but now I delete the periods at the ends of sentences when I’m texting my kids. When I text my Baby Boomer friends, though, I let the periods remain, because they do.

It turns out I’m code-switching—changing how I speak or communicate according to context. I’ve long talked about code-switching with business professional clients. At a Friday morning business meeting, you drop the slang or accent of your regional dialect, but that night, when you’re having pizza with friends, you release your New York accent in its glory.

In this communication era, when up to five generations (Silent Generation, Baby Boomer, Gen X, Millennials, and Gen Z) might be interacting in any one workplace, I suspect we’re all code-switching, whether we notice it or not.

This email series is on intergenerational communication¾when two or more people from different generations communicate. Upon preparing for this series, I see it’s more prevalent—and causes more issues—than I had realized, even after the snafu with my son.

Intergenerational miscommunication is commonplace and problematic

A couple months ago, an executive from a local nonprofit reached out to me for advice on how to reduce the impact of problematic intergenerational communication. The miscommunication was causing stress among his employees—and, clearly, stress for him as an executive.

Around the same time, a friend lamented that a new hire at her workplace was creating discord among her previously peaceful small staff. The young new hire, without life or professional experience of his own, wanted to appear knowledgeable to his new colleagues. He entered conversations to share his dubious expertise (among other egocentric offenses) to such an extent that he disrupted the company culture—conversations became stilted and uncomfortable, workflows were impeded. After trying to coach the employee on culturally-appropriate workplace communication, my friend’s company ultimately let the young man go. The next week, the office felt palpably refreshed for the original employees.

I suspect intergenerational miscommunication contributed to the friction in both situations. Like all interpersonal conflicts, there’s no straightforward fix or equation to follow. But we can learn how the various generations communicate and understand why and how the communication stress occurs.

A primer on the generations

  • The Silent Generation has always kept in touch via face-to-face communication and letters. They value personal interactions and prefer direct, formal communication such as phone calls, letters, and cards.
  • Baby Boomers place importance on professionalism and hierarchy and communicate via phone calls, in-person meetings, emails, and other written communication. Many Boomers have adopted social media and messaging apps to keep in touch with loved ones.
  • Generation X witnessed the transition from analog to digital technology. They generally favor a mix of online and offline interactions, depending on the context and purpose.
  • Millennials came of age during the turn of the millennium and the rapid expansion of digital technology. They’ve grown up with widespread internet access and have lived the rise of social media. They’re generally tech-savvy and socially conscious. They value fast, convenient, informal communication. Like Gen X, they blend and balance online and offline communication but tend to favor digital.
  • Generation Z is growing up in a world dominated by technology and the internet. They’re digital natives, meaning smart phones and social media have always been integral parts of their lives. They value constant connectivity, favoring informal, visual communication, like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, video calls, emojis, and GIFs.

Even knowing this about the generations and having the best intentions, most of us—unless we’re super code-switchers—won’t be able to communicate in a native fashion with people from each generation. But we can try. Even better, we can ask individuals how they prefer to communicate and accommodate them as we’re able.

Why should we care about intergenerational communication?

Smooth communication matters deeply in all types of professional employment. People appreciate their jobs more when communication is easy, when they collaborate well with their colleagues, when they’re getting stuff done, when they have a friendly, workable environment to spend the next 8 hours.

It also matters for employee retention (as we saw in my friend’s scenario above). When people don’t feel comfortable in their environment, they leave.

My husband, Brian, loves to stay up on trends among young people. He just loves to be part of the conversation. He shows his interest in people, shows his desire to include and be included—and people respond to it. Whatever their generation, people like feeling noticed and included.

Fortunately, the golden rules of communication apply to constructive intergenerational communication. (And we all can use regular reminders on how to communicate well and respectfully). Compromise, open willingness to engage, and awareness of our own habits easily bridge small divides before they turn into chasms. It helps to want to hear from someone of another generation—and to remember that you’re rarely required to take their advice or to agree with them, but you frequently benefit by showing honest respect for their contribution.

As employees, especially when we’re trying to advance professionally, we can seek out the opinions and feedback of people in other generations. It helps us view our work critically and shows commitment to diversity.

For organization leaders, to create a productive, creative environment, we must talk about communication. In many organizations, management shies away from directly addressing communication issues, so the issues compound. But nearly all of us benefit from education on why we perceive others as we do or how we can shift our attitudes to accept different communication styles. Through education, we peel back our misconceptions and begin to see our workplace relationships as they are, rather than through our preconceived beliefs.

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