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Don’t Let Generational Gaps in Etiquette Be a Reason You Don’t Succeed

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

No matter which generation you belong to, be mindful, and appreciate our differences.

As I prepared to write this article, I asked my friend, a retired college professor, and mother of three, what she sees as the most significant generational gaps regarding communication today. She said: texting as a primary means of communication, the use of abbreviations, lack of “thank you” notes, 24–7 work emails, and her least favorite, screening calls — these days many people prefer to text.

There are many ways to communicate what we want to convey; our emotions, our thoughts, our big ideas. Our methods of communication have evolved along with technology. Over the generations, social codes also changed to match the times. But the core values of etiquette, respect, appreciation, and kindness, remain constant.

Today, we have a wide choice of communication tools; email, texts, DM, social media channels, snail mail, or even an old-fashioned phone call. We also communicate in very subtle ways, such as our tone of voice, body language, or even the way we dress. Sometimes, the customs and norms of our generation direct how we communicate — and how we miscommunicate. While the core values of etiquette are the same, its manifestations can be generational.

For instance, generational divides impact the workplace, and etiquette is important. It is vital to recognize generational nuances and learn how to respectfully navigate them for collaborative success. Be mindful that each of us is an individual, yet also a member of a specific generation, with certain characteristics.

Consider, today, many work environments tend to be more casual, in preferred communication forms and in dress codes. Yet companies may employ up to four different generations, all with different preferred methods of communication and dress. Without open minds and training, generational idiosyncrasies can easily impede communication and the bottom line.

Colleagues from different generations may get stuck on how different things were done in “their day” and miss out on the chance to contribute effectively because they don’t want to adapt to new ways of work. For example, some younger staff may value their contributions and work solutions over dress codes or traditional workday schedules. They may prefer to work hours that fit their lifestyle, family, and home life, yet they are very productive members of the organization. To my friend’s point, this is why you may get a work email at 2 am. Monday through Friday; 9–5 is no more.

Younger colleagues may like to communicate with succinct emails or texts, relaying just the salient points. Why expend more than is necessary? Time is precious. They feel they are respectful to their colleagues as they share their thoughts and solutions, albeit via an unconventional work schedule. Younger team members think they are assets in the organization because they achieve their goals. When they achieve them is irrelevant as long as deadlines are met.

The younger generation is compliant with the current manifestations around etiquette: They offer respectful yet casual dress, time-saving and succinct communication in business emails, and goal achievement. Regardless of style or time of day, they respectfully get the job done.

On the other hand, staff from older generations value their productivity, but may also appreciate more formal dress, and view long, traditional work hours as equally important. They may like to communicate with multiple emails to make sure their point is clearly and thoroughly expressed. Further, they want to hear back to confirm that you received their email. They might prefer email to abbreviated work text messages peppered with emojis, and sent at all hours.

However, the older team members also feel they are compliant with etiquette. They look the part; they sound the part; they meet their goals and are valued. They too are respectfully getting the job done.

To marry these different work styles, all team members need to keep open minds, look past current methods, and concentrate on what’s essential: success, goal achievement, and the bottom line.

Years ago another friend of mine arranged a big, in-person meeting with financiers and some high-level tech executives. There was a meet and greet beforehand, and a few minutes after it started, one of the financiers said to my friend, “When are the tech executives arriving?” She said, “That’s them in the jeans and hoodies.”

That was a lot to unwrap. There was a generational gap as well as a geographical, cultural gap. The financiers assumed executives at this level would dress and act as formally as they did. The young tech executives did not care or notice the financiers’ formal dress; they came to do the deal. In the end, they made a deal, and minds opened.

In our personal lives, it is always nice to get a hand-written note in the mail, but the important thing is that any act of kindness be appreciated, no matter how it is delivered. Regarding my friend’s distaste of call screening, is it really such a bad thing? I know I’ve been guilty of it; maybe I’m crossing generational borders.

To conclude, remember that etiquette has always been, and likely always will be, about respecting others. No matter which generation you belong to, be mindful, and appreciate our differences. That is how you court success. You do not have to assimilate, but you must know how and when to adapt. We are all different, but we can all communicate, regardless of the medium. Please do so with empathy and a little kindness. You’ll be more successful for it.


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