What We Can Learn From Gen Z Communication

Communication style evolves over generations. In the 1930s, you may have heard something along the lines of “Oh, yes, rather. I mean, it’s jolly good of you. Of course, absolutely—must be in on the jolly old sweep, what?” This is the reply Lord Peter Wimsey gives in Dorothy Sayers’s 1933 novel, Murder Must Advertise, when asked whether he wants to join an office sweepstakes pool.

This slangy, extended version of “Yes, thank you” (which is all he’s really saying) demonstrates the speaking style among the younger generation of the time that drove their elders bananas. Today, many of us don’t look upon Gen Z with the same fondness—or patience—that we have for Lord Peter. However, I would suggest that we should consider the good that can come from genuinely listening to Gen Z and perhaps even adopting some of their workplace communication habits.

Generational Differences: Prescriptive vs. Authentic Communication
First, let’s think about how our current older generation frames business communication—especially the language we use and expect from others. I entered the workforce in the early ’90s, and the style of communication that we were expected to use was prescriptive in nature. We were expected to be formal, direct, specific, and get to the point quickly and without flourish. Having been influenced by pop culture (“Like, gag me with a spoon!”), we were more likely to be informal, indirect, and punctuate our sentences with dramatic inflection.

The further a person’s own identity was from the Greatest Generation, the more they had to code-switch, adopting, especially in their speech, a whole different persona from their own core identity. This verbal costume allowed people to fit in on the surface, but the bulk and artificiality of it could impede the wearer’s natural agility and momentum, preventing them from excelling in all the ways they might have.

In contrast, let’s look at how Gen Z, and the Millennials that preceded them, have opted instead for an authentic approach. This generation speaks as they naturally do, and if it doesn’t fully get the job done, they make small adjustments as needed. May Habib, CEO of Writer.com, observes that “Gen Z values authenticity and honesty at work. There’s less distance between who they are in their work and real lives, and it shows up in how they dress and speak and what they choose to share with colleagues.” In other words, they have rejected the itchy, impeding work-speak costume of their grandparents’ generation in favor of effective and authentic communication that doesn’t rely on rigid rules.

Gen Z values authenticity and honesty at work. There’s less distance between who they are in their work and real lives, and it shows up in how they dress and speak and what they choose to share with colleagues.” May Habib, CEO, Writer.com

How Gen Z Talks in Person is How They Talk Online
I’m willing to bet that if your company has a social media manager or a digital communication director, that person is 40 or younger. Maybe a lot younger. They’re being paid to engage with the entire globe online, representing your brand in ways designed to be meaningful to that vast virtual audience.

Online communication—in message boards, tweets, subreddits, Twitch streams, comment sections—is its own language family with varied dialects and vocabularies dependent on context and purpose. This authentic and informal style naturally spills over into Gen Z’s verbal and written communication patterns at work. It seems bizarre to ask the people you rely on to translate your work into this constantly evolving language to turn back into ’80s office-bots when they speak to you. It’s a bit like asking someone in their 40s or 50s to speak like Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies. This communication costume is regressive, effortful, and unnecessary.

Why wouldn’t you instead want to understand the language of the internet? Even if you don’t choose to speak it, embracing it is crucial to your ability to move forward with your organization.

Gen Z Speaks Using Their Whole Self and Embraces Inclusivity
The Gen Z approach embraces and maintains vigilant awareness of all the identities a person brings to the workplace. From culture to gender to (dis)ability, Gen Z’s workplace speaking style assumes there’s room for everyone.

Companies can’t expect to be taken seriously if they trumpet their DEI initiatives and diverse workforce while simultaneously forcing employees to put on a monochromatic identity in their communication. Including one’s pronouns in introductions or email signatures simply invites others to do the same. Focusing on the content of communication delivered by someone with an accent, and consciously working to reject the value judgments stereotypically associated with that accent, opens up a huge range of ideas and opportunities for a company.

Can these new communication habits sometimes feel like a tedious or unnecessary assertion of identity to those of us of a certain age? Perhaps, but a correction, even if it feels like an overcorrection, is long overdue, and Gen Z should be thanked for it rather than chided.

Embrace Authenticity in the Workplace
At Turpin Communication, we embrace authenticity, and one of our guiding principles is that we help people “Find your focus. Be Yourself. Only Better.” What exactly does this mean, especially when it comes to Gen Z?

  1. Find your focus. Finding your focus means understanding what you need to do to settle into a meaningful conversation. The skills to do this are different for everyone, and it’s our job to figure it out for each individual we work with. For the younger generations, it’s usually about helping them work through their nervousness or unease at having to communicate with older, more experienced co-workers.
  2. Be yourself. Once someone is focused, they can be authentic in their conversational style. For Gen Z, this plays to their strengths.
  3. Only better. The only better part is where it can get tricky for Gen Z. What exactly does it mean to be “professional” in the eyes of co-workers? Does it mean eliminating filler words like “like” and reducing the number of times statements sound like questions? Not exactly. It means working to be clear, thoughtful, and inclusive in how they approach colleagues and do it in a way that is appropriate for the situation they are in.

As we (hopefully) move forward into a more inclusive world and workplace, let’s embrace our younger generations and their communication style. Wouldn’t it have been easier on us if our elders had done the same?

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About the Author: Barbara Egel

Barbara Egel is an experienced trainer and presenter who has worked in a variety of fields from qualitative consumer research to children’s multimedia publishing. In each of her roles, Barbara has specialized in helping people get comfortable in situations that, at least at first, are uncomfortable. This includes helping fiction writers get comfortable writing code and enabling marketers and product developers to talk directly with their customers. Most recently, Barbara was Vice President at Primary Insights, Inc., a boutique qualitative research consultancy. She currently is on the faculty of Harold Washington College in Chicago, where she teaches writing. At Turpin Communication, Barbara is a workshop coach and was the developmental editor of The Orderly Conversation. She has degrees from the University of Illinois and Northwestern University.

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