Talkin’ ’bout your generation — How to overcome generational differences in communication

The phrase ‘the generation gap’ came into common usage in the 1960s. It referred to the lack of understanding between the older generation, born earlier in the century, and the new tribe of teenagers and young people which emerged after World War Two.

Depending on your viewpoint, the younger generation changed a moribund society into one which was better, brighter and freer, or it plunged the country into the depths of depravity, permissiveness and uncouth behaviour.

The battle lines were easily drawn, as popular culture made the most of stand-offs between narrow-minded oldies — typified by colonel types, bowler-hatted businessmen and uptight suburban parents — and the young upstarts with their loud music, long hair and lack of morals.

We’re doing it more than ever now — dividing society into tribes defined by their age.

We’ve got Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials (also known as Gen Y), with Gen Z and Gen Alpha (do keep up) snapping at their heels.

These divisions help sociologists, advertisers, branders, marketers. They aren’t much help to anyone else. In fact, this form of categorisation is damaging relationships and the way we communicate with each other.

It just isn’t true that everyone born within a certain timeframe thinks in the same way and displays the same personal characteristics as others in their age demographic. It’s not even true that they have had the same experiences or have been exposed to identical social and cultural movements and events.

When we use a phrase such as ‘it’s a generational thing’ to explain or defend ourselves, we’re ducking away from owning our attitudes or behaviour, and taking refuge behind a comforting label.

So rather than assume that different attitudes to communication are an inherent part of our make-up and are determined by which generation we belong to, as fixed as our date of birth and the colour of our eyes, we could harness what we learn from different styles of interacting in order to strengthen understanding and harmony between people of all ages.

Don’t assume mindsets

It’s easy to generalise about people’s attitudes, but it’s not a good idea to presume that someone will think in a certain way because of their age.

It’s better to see each person as an individual rather than assign particular viewpoints to particular age groups. Focus on the person, and try not to be influenced by their generation.

Choose the best form of communication for the circumstances

You have choices. It’s easy to get stuck in one mode, the one we’re most used to, which may not be the most appropriate.

A message is about more than just the content. That’s why we’re outraged when someone is dumped by text, or when significant news is diminished by being relayed in an over-casual form. Use multiple communication methods, and base your choice and your reactions on the whole context.

Think about the nature of what you are saying and how it will be received. For example:

  • Weigh up priorities. For instance, in some circumstances speed of communication is a priority, while in others, it matters less.
  • Sometimes it is important to gauge the receiver’s reaction to your message, sometimes it isn’t.
  • Don’t automatically reach for the phone, because that’s what you (or people of your generation) have always done. Perhaps messaging would be better. Perhaps a written note would be better. Or a text. Or an email. Or some other form of social media. Or perhaps phoning is in fact the right thing.
  • Don’t assume that you will get a quick reply to a text, because you (or your generation) always answer communications promptly.
  • Don’t assume that no one expects you to answer their text, because you (or your generation) are laid back about such matters. Everyone (no matter what their generation) likes to be acknowledged.

Become comfortable with interpersonal skills that seem daunting

There are certain aspects of relating to each other which cause some of us anxiety. It really is worth trying to get over your uneasiness about the role of these characteristics of communication. A little bit of practice will bring familiarity, and you will experience enriched encounters and exchanges.

  • Talking to people face to face

It’s easy to use digital systems as a shield to protect us from being in each other’s presence. We think it’s much easier to send a message than to have a conversation. True, non-personal communication can be a more convenient and a better choice, but, you know, nothing beats proper person-to-person communication. It helps to build relationships. It fosters understanding. Even the shortest face-to-face encounter has a rhythm and energy which is enhanced by tone of voice and body language. Let’s not be scared of each other. And while we’re on this subject…

  • Making eye contact

You might feel shy or awkward about making eye contact. Don’t duck away from it. If you like you could look up some guidelines about how eye contact works, and try them out. In the meantime, just try looking at people. The person who serves your coffee, the bus driver who you wave on because it’s not your number, or who stops to let you get on, the person you join in a queue, the person you cross when walking on the same path – go on, a brief glance and maybe a quick smile. You won’t die of embarrassment, and the world will seem a friendlier place.

  • Phoning

There’s an art to making a telephone call. You have to judge the right time and the right mood. You may be thrown off track by the recipient’s tone of voice, or by what you can hear in the background. It can be a minefield. But sometimes a phone call is the very best thing. You create a different vibe. You hear each other’s voice. You make a nice human connection. If you get something wrong, you can retrace your steps and clear it up. It really is good to talk.

  • Pen and Paper

Whatever generation you belong to, whatever tribe you associate with, never underestimate the power of the written word. Make it a part of your arsenal of ways to communicate. Written letters or notes can bring joy to both sender and receiver. On some occasions, they are absolutely the best choice.

Don’t stereotype people by age

It can be a laugh, having a hack at precious millennials or past-it baby-boomers. But there is a point at which mocking people for perceived generational traits is ageism by another name.

All generations suffer from such stereotyping. We need to build bridges, not walls, and to look behind quirks and habits which are different from ours to see the person behind them.

Even Roger Daltrey flying the flag for the gang of 1965 in The Who’s My Generation didn’t speak for everyone, and there were undoubtedly many young people who didn’t relate to the song’s explosion of angry frustration

Still gets the baby-boomers up and dancing though.

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