Multigenerational Communication in Modern Workplaces

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“Hey, I had a crazy weekend. The rain outside is booming. But it’s all good since I got to sleep in”.

“Good Morning. I hope you had a pleasant weekend and stayed dry from the rain on your commute to work”.

The above quotes are both examples of different types of multigenerational communication I heard in my workplace on the same day. One from a younger person who reports to me and the other from a person slightly older than me who is my supervisor. As a middle manager and X-tennial (older Millennial) myself, I often must switch in dialogue, personalities, and perspectives during the workday. This is the exciting part of my job. I get to work with multicultural and multi-generational teams. However, I also recognize that it can be a challenge for some.

In the workplace, we cannot ignore that age does factor into how we communicate, learn, and thrive. This is not dissimilar to how race and culture can also affect how we communicate, learn, and thrive. DEIB stands for “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.” So, being able to thrive in the workplace is where the BELONGING comes within the work of DEIB.

As a Black man, I came to understand “code-switching” quite well. The Oxford Dictionary describes code-switching as “the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation.” Basically, I have learned to easily say, “What’s up bro” to one person and “Top of the morning” to another person, and have both phrases translated as “Good Morning” quickly in my mind. This reinforces intersectionality and that people are more than just one thing. We can be short and plus-sized, Black and middle-aged, or a woman from Germany. Recognizing and respecting cultures, races, and ages are learning opportunities to face the challenges that can arise in a multi-generational workplace.

A perfect example is that as a young Black man from the South, I always called my elders “sir” or “ma’am.” Yet, earlier in my working career, I verbally replied to my White older female supervisor, “Yes, ma’am.” She felt uneasy and told me to stop that. I was attempting to show deference to her title and age, not trying to offend her. This is a learning opportunity in the workforce. Of course, you should always follow the Code of Conduct and procedures your organization lays out in communicating and working with people. Yet, I also argue that there is another layer to think of when we consider age, especially as it relates to positionality (or title), race, and gender.

ARCHway Learning Solutions President Amber Carlson-Hays and I co-authored a book entitled “Unlocking Potential: Empowering Diversity and Inclusion in Learning and Development.” The title gives you a taste of these perspectives, personal anecdotes, and concrete tools to navigate DEIB in the teaching and learning space. Below is one of my favorite excerpts that relate to this multigenerational topic:

In a learning environment, Westley experienced stereotyping while working with someone different from himself. Being an older, queer, black man, he unintentionally paid less attention to the input of a younger, straight, white woman due to his assumption that she wouldn’t understand his perspective and personal experiences. This led to a lack of a positive working relationship between them. However, hearing her personal story at a public event shattered the stereotype he held, as he realized she had faced more adversity than him. We all have experiences where stereotypes or biases affect our ability to connect.

Westley T. Holiday, Director of Strategic Engagement & Project Management at Columbia University & Co-CEO of Holiday HOOPS and ART
Westley T. Holiday, Director of Strategic Engagement & Project Management at Columbia University & Co-CEO of Holiday HOOPS and ART

In closing, I was recently a guest on a podcast, “Millennials Are Ruining The World,” with host Seth Bisen-Hersch. Of course, millennials are not ruining the world! That is part of the humor and charm of the podcast. The theme of the episode was “Empathy”. After bantering and sharing stories of my career, learnings, and past 16 years in New York City, I had a realization. I am now working with and supervising some people the same age as I was when I came to New York City. That is both mind-blowing and fun. I remember to have empathy for them and keep open perspectives on the things they can teach me, as well as for those who are older than me. We are never too young to start learning. So why do we think we are too old to learn? I am the co-CEO of the nonprofit Holiday HOOPS & ARTs with my younger sister, Faith Holiday. We are seven years apart in age, and most times, we work very well together. Sometimes, it feels like we are more than a decade apart. Yet, after years of working together for the good of children and families, one thing has become clear. Different perspectives create discourse. Discourse creates learning opportunities. And what we learn from each other can absolutely change the world. For real, though (code-switching).