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Workplace Culture

Ellipses and emoji: How age affects communication at work

Meghan McCarty Carino Oct 21, 2019
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Using emoji at work can create miscommunication between generations.
Stephen Lam/Getty Images

Older workers are the fastest-growing part of the labor force in this country. Whether because they want to or because they need to, more Americans are delaying retirement or rejoining the workforce past 65 and even 75 years old, which means we now have the most age-diverse workforce we’ve ever had. There are four, sometimes even five distinct generations working side by side. Couple that with the fact that we now have more ways to communicate than ever before, and you sometimes end up with complications.

Millennial Stuart Horgan doesn’t buy into a lot of the tired stereotypes about generational difference. The operations manager at a tech startup in Boston has never taken a photo of his food and knows plenty of selfie-obsessed boomers. But when it comes to communicating with older colleagues, he sees a big divide on one small point: “They use periods a lot,” he said. “I didn’t even realize this, but they sound very stern, like very final.”

Or even worse, he said, they’ll sign off their messages with an ellipsis, “which for a millennial is just like the height of passive aggression.”

He vividly remembers one instance on a Friday afternoon when he sent off a big presentation to a 56-year-old manager.

“And he just responds, ‘Thanks … enjoy the weekend …'” he said. “I definitely looked at the presentation for probably like six hours that weekend trying to figure out what was wrong with it.”

Horgan is part of a generation that grew up replacing a lot of face-to-face time with text-based communication, so every last character is precious and pregnant with meaning. That’s why he likes to use shorthand visual cues like GIFS or emoji to clarify his tone. But not everyone is on board.

When 48-year-old Generation Xer Alex Mahlke receives an emoji-laced email, it doesn’t go over well. “OK, now you look like you’re 10,” she said. “Do we not have language anymore?”

Mahlke likes to think of herself as hip with the young crowd. She’s worked as a project manager in gaming and entertainment, but when it comes to the written word, she’s old school.

“It’s like you can’t even be bothered to write a sentence. How does this reflect on how detail oriented are you?” she said.

A recent survey from writing software company Grammarly found workers under 35 were 50% more likely than older workers to be told their tone was too informal, even though more younger workers said they spent time agonizing over meaning, tone and grammar in their emails.

Miscommunication between different age groups is hardly a new phenomenon, said Bob McCann, a management communications professor at University of California, Los Angeles. But the fast pace of technological change is deepening the divide between generations.

“Every three weeks, we have a new platform that we need to deal with, a new app that’s coming out, and we have to adjust and we have to change,” he said.

Communicating fluently over a broad range of channels, from conference calls to group chats, is becoming ever more important, he said.

And sometimes that should include emoji, said Vik Verma, CEO of workplace communication platform 8×8 and former smiley face hater.

“Until it started to dawn on me that if you send a bold text, the probability that it will be misunderstood is massive, and one little icon changes it,” he said.

He believes it’s all about context and tailoring communication not to fit the learned preferences of one generation or another but the demands of the task at hand: email for deliberate, complex thinking; chat for shoot-from-the-hip collaboration; or phone for urgent matters.

And sometimes there’s really nothing better than a good old-fashioned face-to-face meeting.

Remember Stuart Horgan and his ellipses problem? We asked him if he’d be willing to meet with his boss, Tom Murphy, to get to the bottom of all those dots. Turns out Murphy intended them to have a completely different meaning than his younger colleagues were interpreting them — kind of as an informal softening device, rather than passive-aggressive wariness.

“I do now feel like I’m the stinky kid in class, and no one wants to tell me, and someone finally told me, so I guess that’s good news,” Murphy said.

Now if someone can just explain the meaning of the 10 different smiley emoji …

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