Studying abroad was life altering for me. It changed my perspective on the world. Traveling in nine countries, encountering new people, and learning to navigate in strange places (before GPS was a thing) all helped me find connection with other cultures. I even managed to learn the language of my home-for-a-semester country of England. Seriously. But, you ask, “Don’t they speak English in England?” Well, yes and no. Culturally, I still had to learn that In England a boot is the trunk of your car, not something you wear on your feet. A purse is a wallet and a handbag is a purse. A trolley is a grocery cart, not a mode of transportation, and a lift is an elevator rather than an encouraging moment in your day. You get the point.
If I didn’t get it right, it could mean trouble. Complimenting a British woman on her pants would risk offense since that refers to her underwear, not her slacks. If you intended to see a soccer match, you needed to ask for football tickets or end up disappointed. If you asked for a biscuit with your breakfast, you were actually ordering a cookie—tasty, but not the best choice to start the day. The consequences of getting it wrong were never more than embarrassment but understanding the language of the locals definitely helped me make better connections.
I carried a small spiral tablet with me to record my linguistic discoveries (low tech—along with my old fashioned street map). The notebook is long lost but Google instantly allowed me to reconstruct the language differences. The pace at which our culture is changing is astonishing. That also means that without ever leaving their home country, your sons and daughters are living in a culture that could be light years from your own. The potential consequences of us not interpreting our students’ cultural language correctly could be the difference between connection and offense.
Perspective is everything. Since the term “generation gap” was invented by the boomers in the 1960’s, we’ve looked at the unique realities created when the next generation solidifies their group personality around their common history. The technological advances, shared tragedies, entertainment, and economic trends of their generation shape who they are as they enter adulthood. Their collective experience can become the primary lens through which they see the world, informing how they vote, what they buy, and the foundation of their generational values. Needless to say, their cultural lens is different than ours.
We are facing an unprecedented generational challenge. We are living – and working—longer. Whether that is because we’re staying active, are not financially prepared for retirement, or just want to stay engaged, we’re waiting longer to exit the workplace. When you add to that the rapidly increasing pace of change for communication and technology, the result is up to five generations in the current workforce. Each has its own priorities, values, and communication preferences. Managers who have a talent for knowing how to navigate these differences are in high demand.
Cross-generational skillsets may not come naturally but they are just as mission-critical in parenting as they are in today’s workforce. I am a tail-end Baby Boomer (born 1946-64). As I attempt communication with my two Millennials (born 1977-1995), it is clear that I haven’t mastered their language. I had to learn that “tbh” means “to be honest.” I had to ask what the big deal was about social media increasing FOMO (fear of missing out). I had to figure out that a vlog was not a misspelling of blog. I don’t think I am alone. You could just as easily be a Gen X parent (born 1965-76) experiencing a language barrier with your Gen Z children (born 1996 and after). If we agree with Babble Magazine that a language is “a mutually intelligible mode of communication,” then we need to learn to speak our students’ language.
We haven’t had the same generational experience as our students, but we can relate to what it feels like to want to be understood through our own unique experience because we want that, too. I am not without choices to find connection with my kids. I can work overtime to be the “hip” mom who joins in their experiences bae (before anyone else). A few of us can pull off keeping up with their music and movies, mastering their latest video game, dressing in their fashions, and learning to talk the talk of our linguistically innovative youth. Unfortunately for me, when it’s clear I’m trying too hard to stay on trend, I also earn the “eye rolls.” I bet you know what I’m talking about.
A more reasonable choice for me is to develop enough understanding of their experience to see the line where I lose my credibility and know when to hold my tongue! For example, I know that the value statements I ascribe to the words “conservative” and “liberal” include a lot of political implications. My young adults are more likely to land closer to Webster’s definition. When they call themselves a liberal, they mean “one who is open-minded” and “marked by generosity.” Conversations using those terms usually go south quickly for me, so I’ve learned where to steer clear. Whether I’m trying too hard or making a decent effort and still getting it wrong, I risk losing credibility and connection.
Honestly, I need help getting a solid fix on today’s chaotic culture. AXIS is a faith-based non-profit whose mission includes empowering parents of young adults. Their website, https://axis.org, states, “Being aware of the pulse of culture allows us to bridge the gap between generations by translating pop culture into the ideas it espouses for younger generations, while explaining and interpreting youth culture in ways that older generations understand.” Their weekly e-letter, The Culture Translator, provides insight into how pop culture, technology, and media influence our students. While I cannot guarantee an absolute match between their content and your family values, I have appreciated their ability to speak languages of both today’s parents and students.
For our closest look at our student’s experience, the absolute experts are our own young adults. If we want to experience God firsthand, isn’t it true that reading Scripture ourselves, spending personal time with the Lord, and asking our questions directly in prayer are more life changing than hearing about someone else’s experience? If you are willing to admit that you aren’t up on the latest music, don’t relate to being a digital native, and can’t imagine living through the current history milestones without your decades of context, then starting a conversation with your special student about their generational culture might be the most direct route to understanding. The next time you want to get inside your student’s experience, begin the conversation with, “Help me understand your perspective.” Then just listen.