An old white man is engaged in conversation with a young blonde boy and a blonde woman.

This story slaps — Communicating across generations

| April 17, 2024

Jennifer Hellman

Jen Hellman

CEO / President

Earlier this week, I had a great time keynoting the 50th anniversary celebration for DARTS, a local organization that provides services to help seniors live independently. In the audience were seniors, those who care for and about them, and business professionals of all ages who support the work of this wonderful organization.

The topic was communicating across generations. I talked about the different ways we understand and process information, the words and phrases we use, and the frustrations we sometimes have communicating with each other.

A few months ago, I visited my 98-year-old grandpa shortly before he died. I always enjoyed conversations with him because he was a skilled communicator. He would ask good questions, joke and laugh at the right points in the conversation to show he was really listening (not judging!), and he was always present in the moment. Even at the end of his life when his energy was greatly diminished, he laughed, asked relevant questions, and genuinely wanted to know about me and my family. The visit was especially meaningful because the communication was good – we felt heard and understood.

As I was preparing for the DARTS speech, my Goff Public colleagues and I had a lot of fun talking about the differences in generations and how our communications sometimes get tripped up by language. I learned that some of my younger colleagues were confused by those of us who say we are going to be “out of pocket for the day,” meaning we were going to be unavailable for work calls and emails. My younger colleagues know “out of pocket” to mean doing something crazy or unhinged. So, when I said I was going to be out of pocket for an appointment, they pictured something more like me at a rave than me at the dentist’s office.

I also learned that my use of ellipses (dot, dot, dot) in emails was making many of them nervous. I was meaning, “Stay tuned.” They were anxiously wondering, “Why is she upset?” or “What isn’t she telling us?” or “Was it something I did or didn’t do?”

Regardless of generational differences in slang and the way we communicate, there are basic tenets of good communication that can help all of us be better, ageless communicators:

  • Assume good intent: All generations need to work on this. We all generally think we are right, which is creating more friction and division than unity. If we start by assuming we’re all coming to the conversation from a good place, we can go farther together.
  • Be an active listener. This means listening without interrupting, judging or jumping to conclusions. Challenge yourself to slow down your listening and really hear people out. It shows respect, which can lead to growth and great conversations.
  • Show that you’re listening. Nonverbals matter. Think of how it feels when you are talking to someone who is checking their phone or seems distracted. Lean in. Get focused. Be present.
  • Keep an open mind. You might think phone calls are the best way of communicating, but the younger people in your life might prefer text. No one is right or wrong. We’re just different. Be open to new forms of communication. Give it a go. Be curious and willing to learn.
  • Ask questions. Younger and older generations alike are afraid to admit they don’t understand. This leads to miscommunication. If you don’t understand, ask.

For example, do you know what it means when I write, “This story slaps?”

If not, send me an email and we’ll start a conversation. Or ask your younger colleagues or people in your life. You might discover – like I did while preparing for the keynote speech – that we’re all curious to learn and understand. And we can have a lot of fun connecting over our differences!

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Contributing Team Members

Jennifer Hellman

Jen Hellman

CEO / President
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