Can the way you write be problematic in a multigenerational workplace? I didn’t think so until I read linguist Gretchen McCulloch’s new book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. She makes the case that the internet has changed language significantly. It’s created a divide between those who learned to write in an analog world and those who learned in a digital world.
These changes came to light recently at my house.
My 22-year-old son, Andy, has a YouTube channel, and someone with a handle he didn’t know wrote several positive comments there. “Dad, did you secretly write those comments?” he asked my husband. When Joe said he had not, Andy replied, “Well, the comments all use perfect punctuation, so I thought maybe you wrote them.”
Later my husband confided to me, “I’m flattered that at least Andy acknowledged I have perfect punctuation.” He said it as if it were a compliment from his eighth grade English teacher. I knew better and had to set Joe straight. For Andy’s generation, I told him, “perfect punctuation” isn’t necessarily a compliment. It’s not that you put commas in the right place, it’s that you used punctuation at all. In other words, “perfect punctuation” means someone old wrote it. “Oh,” Joe said, as he slunk away.
I know how Joe felt. For several years now I’ve been disturbed to see punctuation norms changing, and have clung to my righteous indignity about it. As an editor, these are things I’ve been trained to care about.
McCulloch’s book has helped me let go of punctuation judgment, though. It also gives a window into some of the subtleties of how the generations communicate differently. While the incident I described above was just a minor irritation within my family, in a multigenerational workplace (which we hope means in every workplace) these communication differences can be impactful.
McCulloch’s premise is that over decades and centuries, language has consistently changed. For example, moving from spoken word to printed word evolved the language. A major game-changer occurred more recently when the internet opened writing to the masses. Never before have so many people been able to “publish” their writing in so many ways and so universally. As a result, some sweeping changes have occurred: Writing is shorter, more casual and devised to be faster to both write and read. This can create a disconnect between those who began writing in digital media, and those of us who learned to write on paper.
McCulloch uses an interesting convention to make her point: the varying interpretations of the ellipsis (…) and line break. She makes the case that line breaks are used online by the internet generation to indicate pauses between “utterances,” such as:
how’s it going
just wondered if you wanted to chat sometime this week
For people oriented towards the offline world, utterances are indicated with a dash or string of dots (guilty as charged!):
hey…how’s it going…just wondered if you wanted to chat sometimes this week…maybe Tuesday….?
The problem comes when the two are inadvertently mixed (usually by us older folks):
how’s it going…
just wondered if you wanted to chat sometime this week…….maybe tuesday…..?
McCulloch posits that the linebreak generation will find this mix perplexing, so will interpret a hidden message in the dot dot dot–passive aggression. She says, “A message like this, say from a boomer boss to a millennial employee reads quite differently depending on what you think of as neutral.” (Fair warning: Your reaction to this example may reflect your analog bias. My husband did not buy McCulloch’s point!)
Similarly, a discussion around whether the single period shows anger has apparently been happening since 2013. This was news to me, but makes sense. For example, there’s a big difference in a text conversation between “Fine” and “Fine.” The latter is somewhat of a huff.
Voice and tone are also evolving with the younger generation. Recently, I mediated a work disagreement about copy for the company’s customer service chatbot. The older sales executive believed a more formal tone was imperative for the startup’s corporate clients. The younger customer experience manager wrote the chat messages in a friendlier, more casual tone and defended this as standard in the SaaS world. I think both were right, and in the end they were able to strike a mid-way compromise in tone.
In the end, we all bring differences to the workplace based on how we were schooled. But the magic happens when each generation is able to contribute the best of that, and we all work with an open mind to be sure we’re understood. Medium and context are more important than ever when it comes to writing. As for me, I’ve let go of the judgment, and am striving to become a line breaker in texts and Slack. But I admit to maintaining a fondness for periods and capital letters. At least where they’re harmless.
Nancy Branka is founder of Startup Decoder, which offers resources on startup employment for those over 45. She headed up content for an early-stage startup for four years, and prior served as managing editor of Executive Travel magazine, an American Express Publishing title. She lives in the SF Bay Area.
Photo by Nan Palermo on Flickr