As important as communication is, you would think that God would have made it a simpler task. Yet it seems as though we constantly encounter barriers, whether it be between the sexes, between age groups or even different regions of the same country. And that is not to speak of the challenges of communicating in another culture! Our family spent 7 years as missionaries in Germany and in that time learned to speak German fairly fluently. However, I will never forget the early days when the telephone would ring and both my wife and I would look at each other and practically beg the other person to answer it. To say there were obstacles is an understatement!
When it comes to communication with Millennials or Gen Y (broadly classified as those born between 1980 and 2000), many people have the feeling they are speaking two different languages. We may be saying the same words, but the meanings often seem to be drastically different. Sociologists, philosophers and theologians have all spent considerable amounts of time and energy establishing the fact that there has been a seismic shift in our culture. When we communicate with this current generation of young adults, we are not just crossing the same type of generation gap which previous generations have fought to cross, we are attempting to communicate across a growing cultural rift which often leaves both sides frustrated and confused.
Language is used for a variety of things. It is both a vehicle of information, but also of relationship. Words may be loaded with both types of communication. When I say to my wife, “Sweetheart, I am going to the store.” I am communicating something about my intention to go to the store (information), but I am also using language assuring her of her unique place in my life (relationship). That is clear to most of us. We even grin when the waitress at the local diner calls us “dear” or “sweetheart” because the relationship term is somewhat out of place, but endearing nonetheless. We all are aware of the subtle dance between relationship and information which is taking place in our interactions with one another. Because of that, we have defined certain words, topics and even methods of communication as “appropriate” or “inappropriate” in given circumstances or in certain relationships. Now, imagine that someone has taken all of these subtle “rules” that we all play by and has turned them on their head. Welcome to communication in the new millennium!
Perhaps it would be helpful if we understood some of the ways in which we see relationships differently. For instance, most of us who are over the age of 30 view authority as having something to do with a position held. In other words, your boss has authority over you because of his position. So too, the Pastor of a church might have a certain authority which was granted to them because of their position. This is no longer the case. Authority is earned through relationship and has very little to do with positional leadership. Now, this should not be understood to mean that Gen Y-ers hate their bosses or are trying to rebel, it simply means that they are seeking to establish the relationship and allow room for the authority to be earned. What this means is that the types of things Gen Y workers may want to discuss with their boss may seem wildly inappropriate for the workplace. They will likely share much more personal information than older workers. So too, a local Pastor will have very little authority (moral or otherwise) to speak into the lives of the younger generation unless they see a willingness to be in relationship with them.
With that in mind, it is perhaps understandable why this generation values authenticity so highly. If relationship is the key to open the door to a clear flow of information and influence, then authenticity is the welcome mat, which says that all people, not just those who have it all together, are welcome to be a part of the team. Because the primary focus is authenticity in relationships, Gen Y-ers tend to be much less guarded in their communication. They know where their faults lie and are much less timid about admitting those to others. Now, this does not mean that someone trying to communicate with someone in the millennial generation will only gain credibility by opening their lives to the same degree. However, someone who is afraid to admit their own struggles or feels it most appropriate to put forward only their best façade will indeed find it challenging to connect.
But for some of us, it may not be the fact that Millennials are focused on relationship or even the fact that they are extremely open with what is happening in their lives, it is the MODE of communicating these things which baffles us. Who hasn’t heard of the Gen Yer who breaks off a relationship via text message or seen someone spill their guts on Facebook for all the world to see. For those in earlier generations, this way of interacting through technology doesn’t just seem inappropriate for those relationships, we characterize it as a clear indication that this generation doesn’t have deep relationships at all. While we may struggle to understand it, this is a generation for whom technology isn’t a tool, it is an appendage of themselves. Communicating through technology is something they have done their whole lives and they are much more in tune with the subtleties of those ways of interacting. While that certainly doesn’t mean we have to acquiesce completely in our desire to actually speak face to face (in fact, we can help Gen Y-ers learn the skills of that type of interaction, while allowing them to help us in our online communication abilities), if we totally askew online communication as inappropriate, we will miss an entire level of communication. Oh, and just forget email, that’s so last century.
Nick Howard is Regional Director for the Texas Baptists Collegiate Ministry Team and lives in Houston.