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New slang: A primer for communicating across generations at work

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This article has been vetted by University of Phoenix's editorial advisory committee. 
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Jessica Roper

Reviewed by Jessica Roper, MBA, director of Career Services at University of Phoenix

For anyone who may doubt that language evolves, consider how, once upon a time, weeds meant clothes. Or more recently: Sheesh is a good thing, opp is not an opportunity, and it’s the beige flags you might watch out for in work and in love.

Language, in other words, is just one more way to figure out who’s in the club, whether it’s a regional dialect like Creole, jargon from the IT industry or generational slang.

So, what’s a well-intentioned Boomer and an up-and-coming Gen Zer to do when they find themselves in an office together? According to University of Phoenix Career Coach Jamie Johnson, MS, NCC, CCC, follow these three principles for intergenerational communication — and give peace a chance.


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Strive for clarity

At its root, slang is a shorthand way of combining emotion with expression. And, as with most emotional expressions, there’s room for misinterpretation.

Johnson recalls hearing about an exchange between an employee who came into the office and announced, “I am so sick.” Her boss thought the employee was ill; in reality, the employee was touting her fashion choice for the day.

“It really all boils down to communication, doesn’t it?” Johnson observes with a chuckle.

The miscommunication goes both ways too. Younger generations have been flummoxed by the use of out of pocket” in the workplace, for example, or what it means to “cut the mustard.” And “being lit” won’t mean the same thing to the over-40 crowd as it will to Gen Z and younger.

“If we provide an outlet for people to be creative and it is not disrespectful, I don’t think it’s a problem,” Johnson says. “But I think when we get into corporate communications or information that’s going to be shared with a broad audience, we need to be careful.”

It’s best to keep slang reserved for smaller, less formal settings, in other words. Any externally facing communication, emails to the boss or presentations to larger audiences (where your impression may carry bigger consequences) call for professional communication with little room for misunderstanding.

And it bears repeating that it’s imperative to avoid terms or language that are derogatory or discriminatory. Periodt (as the kids say).

Recognize that your language can impact your career

Wordplay and slang have long inspired clever songs, nuanced poetry and the meet-cute in films. As it turns out, slang can also be a vehicle for creating productive professional relationships.

Johnson often works with people who are in the early stages of building their careers, and networking is important for future mentoring and career opportunities. Slang can be a way to connect across generations because it’s familiar, informal and, as noted, a way of creating bonds.

Johnson recalls substitute teaching a virtual sixth-grade classroom during the pandemic, for example. The students began calling her a Boomer, mostly as a way to see how she’d react.

To her credit, she laughed it off and bantered back, which won both their respect and their buy-in during class, she says.

So, it can pay to try to “speak the language” of another generation. Just make sure the context is right. You don’t want your co-workers laughing behind your back for your overuse of fire emojis any more than you want to be the manager who can’t figure out when to use cap appropriately.  

Adopt a growth mindset 

While it can be easy to dismiss a different generation for being out of touch with either the culture or reality, it may be more productive to try and learn from each other.

This is a posture Johnson embraces wholeheartedly. Like going to the U.K. and learning to say lift instead of elevator or pronounce Leicester as Lester, different generations can become intellectually richer by really listening to each other.

“If anything, slang reminds us to be flexible and to really focus on trying to understand where people are coming from,” Johnson says. “Are we willing to move and flex with the language as it grows?”

Plus, if all else fails, you can always compliment your coworker’s weeds. 

Portrait of Elizabeth Exline

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Exline has been telling stories ever since she won a writing contest in third grade. She's covered design and architecture, travel, lifestyle content and a host of other topics for national, regional, local and brand publications. Additionally, she's worked in content development for Marriott International and manuscript development for a variety of authors.

 

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