Communication Across Generations

Jun 1, 2010
8 Min Read

A few of weeks ago, I attended a Leadership Development Program with mostly Gen Xers and Boomers. I believe I was the sole Gen Y attendee there. On the third day of the five-day program, we practiced coaching behaviors. The woman I was paired with had a dilemma at work where there were communication issues with her direct report, who was a good decade or so younger than her. We role played this dilemma,with her assuming the role of the direct report and me serving as her, playing the coach.

At one point during the background preparation for the coaching process, she remarked:

“Here is an example of his poor communication: one Tuesday, he is missing from the office. I go all day wondering where he is, and by the end of the day, when I finally get to my email, I see that he had emailed me last night that he wasn’t going to be in. Why wouldn’t he have just popped in to the office and let me know about this in person?”

At first, I was very confused about the point she was trying to make. At my office, if someone will be out, they send an email; if we don’t realize we’ll be out until the day of, we'll send a text message. Message is sent, message is received--no big deal. After some discussion, several people in the room, including the executive coach facilitating the session, came to an agreement that email is not communication. That email is a one-way memo that is devoid of tone, posture, and other nonverbals so it cannot be used as a method of communicating with another person.

While everyone in the room seemed content with this, it did nothing to clear my confusion. Are we not living in a world where 70% of workplace communication is electronic, where we can converse in 140 typed characters or less, and our teams are dispersed around the globe? Was this not just a case of poor time management and ineffective information flow?

Then, I realized, the difference is not in which communication style is right or wrong or what is new or old. No one person is at fault here. Communication takes two individuals regardless of the medium or modality that is delivering the message. These communication guidelines can be used with 20-year-olds and 80-year-olds, whether you are speaking face-to-face, talking on the phone, composing an email, texting, or sending an IM:

Personal preferences

Introverts need alone time to process information while extraverts often need to talk through a problem before it begins to make sense. To call an introvert on the phone, spring an unexpected issue, and then expect a response during the same discussion will make it appear that you are unreasonable. Similarly, don't expect an extravert who is coordinating a team effort to do so without meetings or at least a conference call (or five). Our personal preferences go a long way in determining whether we'd prefer to send/receive a written message versus whether we want to chat about it. Be flexible as often as you can, but do speak up and request communication that fits your needs when it counts.

Expectations within your relationship

Expectations can be set implicitly or explicitly. If you fail to set expectations verbally, you will set expectations with your actions. If you generally respond to email within five minutes, people will expect that you will always respond quickly and become concerned if you don’t. If you regularly take a day or so to respond to your email, you are effectively training those you communicate with to contact you using other means if something is urgent. If you want to receive certain messages through email and others during team meetings, then let others know.

Norms within your work team

How does work get done in your team or in your company? If you are a bunch of individual contributors, asynchronous communication can be infinitely more productive than constant interruptions. If you are working on a deadline that requires intense concentration (say, programming, writing, or data analysis), it's much easier to turn off Outlook notifications and put up an away message than it is to tune out the overly chatty cubemate. But if you rely on others to get work done--and conversely, others rely on you then you may have to be available and visible.

Communication skills

For decades, training professionals have built up a vast amount of literature on active listening skills, persuasion, and assertive language; how to stand and how to project your voice, and all that. Well, now we need the same for our online world. The words we use in written communication have nuances akin to nonverbal signals during face-to-face conversation. To write a clear and concise email that minimizes confusion, describes intent, and requests action is a skill. To read an email without overanalyzing the emotion or motive behind it is a skill.


Regardless of preferences, expectations, norms, and skills, if you only think of yourself and your needs your communication efforts will fail. Communication takes two--their preferences, their interpretation of expectations, their generational norms, the norms at their previous company or work team, and their communication skills (or lack thereof) have as much of an impact on the message that is conveyed and how it is received.

Do your personal preferences determine how you communicate? Do the generational stereotypes fit you? Leave stories of your communication mishaps in the comments!

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