Improve Communication in an Age-Diverse Workforce

by Jen FitzPatrick

Do your remarks make sense to colleagues of different generations?

On a recent business trip to New York City, my husband Sean and I had the opportunity to spend time with my 26-year old cousin Elizabeth and her boyfriend Josh, who live there. They were eager to take us to this “really cool” bar for a drink. Upon arrival to said bar, I observed the seemingly endless line wrapped around the block and quipped, “I’m not waiting in line unless this place is Studio 54.” Sean grinned at my little joke, while Elizabeth and Josh just stared at us, perplexed.

We had to explain that Studio 54 was an infamous New York City hotspot in the late 1970s and early 1980s, well known for debauchery, exclusivity and (more relevant to this situation) long lines. Of course, this analogy just doesn’t make sense to many of those who are younger than Generation X (the generation Sean and I are part of). After explaining the reference, I interpreted for them: please don’t make me wait in line unless this pub is truly spectacular. Let’s move on to another place to grab a beverage. This generational disconnect prompted me to consider just how often our conversational references are influenced by our age differences.

The Generational Disconnect
Every generation has a shorthand—buzzwords and pop culture references common within its age group. Unfortunately, using this shorthand with people who aren’t your age can cause misunderstandings. Such disconnect happens constantly between the generations, but is perhaps most challenging when it occurs in the workplace. Generational communication disconnect in the workplace can be costly and time-consuming.

Consider Mark, a Baby Boomer and call center representative, who tells Generation Z customer Emily to press “pound” after the call-in number for the customer service line. “What do you mean by “pound?” Emily asks. Members of Generation Z (the generation following the Millennials) have always referred to the “number sign” on a keyboard as a “hashtag.”

Judy, a 78-year-old CEO for a midsized publishing company, is affiliated with the Traditionalist generation (born before 1946). One of her vice presidents, Jake, is a Millennial who wants to give his staff more autonomy by allowing them to work from home. Judy tells Jake she doesn’t like the idea because she prefers people put in plenty of face time at the office. Jake says he doesn’t understand: his people could FaceTime from home or anywhere else they choose to work remotely. The terms “face time” and “FaceTime” obviously have completely different meanings for the two generations.

Joel is a 50-year-old Gen Xer and a big fan of Seinfeld. When he compares one of his company’s customers to Kramerica, his college-age marketing interns don’t understand that the reference is an insult. Unfortunately, one of them repeats this comment within earshot of the customer, and Joel loses the account.

Five Tips for Multigenerational Teams
Here are five ways you can reduce misunderstandings and improve communication when working with multigenerational customers or teams:

  1. Read body language and facial expressions. Sometimes people don’t tell you they don’t understand a remark for fear of seeming ignorant. But you will usually observe confusion expressed in body language and/or facial expressions.
  2. Be cautious about references that may seem “dated,” particularly if you are older than most of your colleagues, vendors or customers.
  3. Be responsible for your own intake of information. Ask if you don’t understand a reference that others seem to understand. At the same time, be aware that responses like “that must have been before my time” to an older person may sound insulting. It’s more sensitive to mention that you simply don’t understand a comment.
  4. If you are a manager, encourage everyone to seek clarification if they are unclear about any workplace communication. While misunderstandings occur often because of age-diverse references, they also happen between those of different cultures, genders and socioeconomic groups.
  5. Acknowledge that age diversity should be respected and embraced. Don’t participate in perpetuating stereotypes about any generation. Making jokes about how Millennials are narcissistic or that the oldest generations can’t handle technology should not be tolerated. Just as you wouldn’t joke about a co-worker’s sexual orientation, race or gender, don’t make fun of someone’s age. Seek to understand what makes your colleagues of different generations good at their jobs. Not only will this assist you in better workplace communication, it will enhance communication in your personal life as well. iBi

Jennifer L. Fitzpatrick, MSW, CSP is an instructor at Johns Hopkins University and founder of Jenerations, a consulting firm that helps improve communication and reduce conflict for age-diverse workforces. For more information, visit jenniferfitzpatrick.com or find her on Twitter @fitzpatrickjen.

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