Robert D. Putnam surveyed the decline of social capital in the United States since the 1950s. In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, he described the massive “reduction in all forms of in-person social intercourse upon which people used to found, educate and enrich the fabric of their social lives.”
Putnam noted that attending club meetings has declined by 58 percent, family dinners by 43 percent and inviting friends over by 35 percent. With modern technology literally in the palm of our hands, are we communicating less?
If you look around your workplace, you’ll likely see that 80 percent of people are texting, calling, emailing, or doing one form of non-personal or face-to-face communication. We communicate more, but in the comfort of our living room, bedroom, while driving or while simply sitting inside our offices. Why bother to host dinner at home when you can make your thumb or fingers send messages in real time, as your thoughts run fast from your brain to your keyboard?
Among the generations at work today, the Generation Y’ers or Millennials claim to be the relational generation. If you look closer, the Generation X’ers have practically the same communication patterns. This is where the Baby Boomers disagree.
ABCs of communication
The Boomers differ from the younger generations in a number of ways: generational orientation to communication — who you are; verbal style difference — what you say; and nonverbal norms — how you look.
Generational orientation refers to “quirks and traits that a particular generation acquires, as people grow up and develop their communication style.” Here are a few examples: Boomers were taught by Traditionalists not to speak unless spoken to by bosses in the higher echelons. They seem either amused or outraged when well-meaning younger bosses tell them that management wants to know what the Boomers think. They were raised in a work environment with a hierarchical structure, where reward and recognition were based mostly on seniority and longevity. This is often a reason why some Boomers resent being bypassed in promotion by hotshot Gen X’ers or Gen Y’ers.
There’s a marked difference in verbal style between Boomers and later generations. Being relational in terms of verbal style becomes more pronounced in the workplace today.
Boomers are more comfortable with face-to-face meetings of team members being all in the same room, where “the volley of conversation goes back and forth smoothly and simultaneously.” Gen X’ers and Gen Y’ers are more comfortable with asynchronous communication that takes many forms — through emails, Twitter, Viber or other forms of instant messaging, whether responses come immediately or come far in between.
The younger generations are more open in communicating about their personal lives at the workplace than the Boomers. Boomers don’t discuss personal life at work, or bring up personal reasons for asking for more benefits, and keep personal interests or needs secret. Work and family are different institutions. Influenced by John F. Kennedy’s inaugural speech, Boomers tend to “ask not what your company can do for you; ask what you can do for your company.”
John Thill and Courtland Bovee tried to break down the concept of “low-context versus high-context cultures” in communicating with diverse generations. Low-context cultures are extremely literal, like in Germany and the US. High-context cultures like Italy “convey most of their meanings through nuances, particularly nonverbal nuances.”
Generally, Boomers are more sensitive to nonverbal cues, as if they have highly evolved antennae to pick up meanings. Some surveys say that between 85 and 93 percent of a speaker’s message is conveyed through nonverbal communications.
What’s the lesson here? If you’re managing a Boomer employee, your facial expressions and hand signals as you speak determine to a large extent the success of your communication and, eventually, your relationship. Very often, the Boomer will believe what your nonverbal is saying, not the words that you speak. To the Boomer, it’s not how often you communicate, but the quality and sincerity of your communication that matter most.
Unfortunately, technology-enabled instant messaging mechanisms have diminished the personal touch, the warmth, the looks, the gestures and other nonverbal cues that mean much to the Boomers.
If you’re managing a Boomer employee, try these seven communication strategies:
– Know what’s important to the Boomers before you speak
– Build stronger one-on-one communication, by occasionally meeting your Boomer employees offsite (say, for lunch)
– Engage in more face-to-face communication with older workers; they’ll like it when you go to the shop floor to talk to them
– Always get the older employee’s perspective in managing conflicts
– Go for win-win solutions by blending your ideas and theirs
– Engage Boomers in collaborative decision-making
– Treat older employees with utmost respect, but NEVER treat older employees like your parents, lest you diminish your authority or get treated like their child.
Like Dave Chappelle said, “You know you must be doing something right if old people like you.”
Ernie is the chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines’s Human Capital Committee, co-chairman of the Employers Confederation of the Philippines’s Technical Working Group on Labor Policy and Social Issues, and past president of the People Management Association of the Philippines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org