How to Talk to Any Generation at Work

My wife and I were hopping around Europe last summer and settling into Florence, Italy, city number 3 of 8. After dropping our stuff at the Airbnb, we went exploring.

We got about 100 yards.

One misstep off an uneven sidewalk and my wife crumpled to the ground in excruciating pain. (For context, she’s had 3 ACL surgeries, stress fractures, a broken nose, and a laundry list of other sports injuries few NFL players could compete with. The woman knows pain.) I rushed to her side after falling behind a few strides only to find her ankle so swollen it was overlapping the side of her Nikes. We hobbled across the street to the first store in sight and examined the damage. Official diagnosis: bad to very bad.

With the help some of some pointing and visual context clues (i.e. the balloon growing on the side of her foot), the store owner gathered that we needed to go the ER. She called a taxi and communicated the details. That was the easy part.

The logistics of an urban Italian ER are, how do you say, different. After waiting 30 minutes for a wheelchair, we waited another few hours to get checked in, then another few hours to see a doctor. Of course, the biggest issue was my Italian being the equivalent of an Olive Garden menu. Not to mention a complete lack of knowledge about Italian healthcare norms. A series of tests and one indifferent doctor later, we were sent on our way with an ACE wrap and a prescription for less-than-FDA-approved painkillers. We asked for a walking boot, but the doctor said they didn’t have one. Technically, that was true.

We made our way to a CVS equivalent and fumbled through an explanation of some supplies we needed. After getting slightly past nowhere, the heavens opened and a bright light flooded the room, followed by the voice of an angel. “My goodness! What happened to you poor thing? Do you need some help?”

Turns out this celestial being was a woman in her fifties with free-flowing grey hair named Anna. Anna just happened to be from California and had been living in Florence for over a decade. She spoke perfect Italian and was more than willing to help two struggling Millennial tourists. We told her we needed a walking boot to make the rest of our trip possible. “Oh! There’s a medical supply store just down the street here. I’ll take you.”

I mentally eye rolled the ER doctor.

Anna guided us to the spot, negotiated the transaction, made sure we were all set, and disappeared into the streets of Florence. I can only assume she ascended to the right hand of the Father.

Thanks to her, our trip was salvaged and my wife somehow weathered 6 more cities, 4 train rides, and 2 flights on one foot.


Culture Clash

Many times communicating with someone from a different generation can feel like culture shock. You might understand the words for the most part, but meaning and context are just flying past each other, lost in the noise of norms, assumptions, non verbals, and personal experience. In a way, you might as well be an American tourist and an Italian healthcare worker.

This can be a particularly salient issue in the workplace. Ideas around power, time, gender, the unknown, teamwork, and happiness can produce a variety of opinions, some of which combine well while others not so much. I use these categories in particular because, if we open up our minds to a new way of conceptualizing generational communication, we can create something pretty special.

Here’s what I mean.

I spent much of my time in grad school researching and writing about generations in the workplace. I’m certainly not an expert, but after analyzing hundreds of academic studies spanning nearly 80 years, I found almost zero evidence that the neatly packaged generations we love to obsess over (The Greatest Generation/Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials) have a distinct set of attitudes and beliefs that is unique from the others. Unfounded generalizations like Veteran rigidity, Boomer technophobia, Gen X aloofness, Millennial entitlement, for example, have little to no reliable data behind them. In fact, the most common conclusion from these studies say that all generations basically want the same things out of work.

So then if we are all actually just trying to achieve the same things in the long run, what’s with all the generational mudslinging? I believe it all boils down to differences in communication, and that a lesson from intercultural communication poses an interesting solution.


The Big Six

Once upon a time, a Dutch IBM engineer named Geert Hofstede decided the multinational corporation needed a better system for adapting to the diverse cultures its foreign offices occupied. Rather than just copy and pasting American management models overseas, perhaps more could be done to take cultural differences into account.

Turns out, he was right.

After a bunch of sophisticated research, Hofstede identified 6 dimensions that formulate the key components of any national culture, and how your interpretation of these dimensions could look very different depending on what country you’re from. These are the same 6 ideas I mentioned earlier: power, time, gender, the unknown/uncertainty, teamwork, and happiness. Understanding how these dynamics interact is imperative for communicating effectively with any culture.

Now, take this approach and apply it to generations. What if we spent time trying to truly understand how individuals, shaped by certain cultural and personal experiences, treat each of these dimensions at work? I’ll use myself as an example:

  • Power - I have a healthy respect for those in higher power positions than me, but I still like to know that I can access them when needed. Corner offices are fine, just leave the door open when possible.

  • Time - I believe the past can teach us very important principles about how to operate in the present and future. I’m not a “that’s the way we’ve always done it” person, looking to past for strict prescriptions. Rather, it is a tool for to apply guidelines for current issues.

  • Gender - This isn’t male vs. female. Hofstede refers to behavior generally classified as masculine (achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material rewards for success) and feminine (cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life). I tend to exhibit more masculine behavior at work, but there are also times when I aim for cooperation and blending in when I’m not feeling confident.

  • The Unknown - Uncertainty doesn’t really bother me for the most part. This could mostly be a life stage thing right now, but I don’t have to have a comprehensive plan before moving forward. I’m good with learning and adapting on the fly.  

  • Team vs. Individual - I’ve experienced work environments where I was part of a team where we each had defined roles and others where I was more of a lone ranger. I much prefer the team approach, but I’m not useless on my own.

  • Happiness - I’m a big proponent of the “pursuit of happiness” as a basic human freedom. Happiness shouldn’t be assumed or directed on our behalf, like assuming all employees want leadership roles, pingpong tables, and single-company careers.

Chances are we differ on at least one of these areas, and that’s the whole point! Cultures, like generations, can’t be simplified to a uniform set of beliefs. They’re complex; they’re diverse; they’re realistic.

What’s not realistic, however, is to expect every employee in every organization to have a complete inventory of their stance on each dimension available for everyone to view and use for every single conversation. So what does this theory look like in practice?

It looks like Anna.

Be a Mavin, Not a Tourist

Remember the Florentine angel who saved my wife and I from international despair? Anna was a cultural mavin.  She moved seamlessly between Italian and American culture, spoke both languages fluently, and knew how to bridge the gap between tourist and native. She didn’t do this by reading articles or watching TED Talks. Rather, she spent real time living, communicating, and interacting with both sides.

Thanks to her expertise, we not only got a walking boot, but we also learned that the reactions of indifference we sensed from locals was because everyone was about to go on their annual vacation to the coast. Businesses would close for months as everyone migrated to their summer homes to escape the heat. This made total sense. It was like a classroom of students mentally checking out of class the week before summer break. That didn’t show up on any of the “Live Like a Local” blogs or Instagram posts we scoured beforehand, though. We needed a cultural mavin.

In the same way, with the help of the 6 dimensions, we have the opportunity to be generational mavins instead of tourists.

But there’s the catch.

Becoming a mavin takes time, intentionality, and humility. Just because you know the language doesn’t make you mavin, nor does knowing a bunch of statistics or anecdotes. Nevertheless, this is usually how we go about trying to talk to someone significantly younger or older than us. Maybe I just need to learn what the kids are saying these days or I guess I'll just start talking about Vietnam or something. These efforts miss the point.

The point is not to try to become a different age. The point is to make the time and effort to understand where the other person is coming from. Empathy. Uncovering their assumptions about power, time, gender, uncertainty, teamwork, and happiness provides a tremendous starting point for effective communication, and may help uncover some of our own biased assumptions as well.

The 6 dimensions are not a silver bullet. They are not a set of prescriptive, linear steps to success. Instead they are complex, messy, and sometimes hard to identify in our evolving workplaces. However, I believe their potential is too great to ignore.

When we take the time to get to know our generation counterparts in this way, we find ourselves listening to understand, not just to respond. We’re not formulating counter arguments in our head or subliminally scoffing at a remark that is counter to our own assumptions. We’re getting glimpses into what makes the other person who they are. We’re starting to immerse ourselves in that person’s individual culture. We’re becoming mavins.

So if you’re having trouble crossing generational lines at work, start by listening more. Start observing more. Start asking more questions. All conversations begin before any words are used. You may find patterns that help you communicate with people of a certain age. You may also find that no pattern exists at all. Use the 6 dimensions as a guide and see what you find.

Be a mavin. Be an Anna. Don’t settle for generational tourism.