Imitation Isn’t Always Flattering

LESSONS FROM THE LAND OF YOUTH AND COOL

In early times, when the younger generation entered the workforce, they emulated their elders in speech, dress, and behavior. Now the tables have turned and the older generations are copying the younger ones in a desperate attempt to remain youthful, cool, and cutting edge. But when it comes to language usage and habits of speech, we would all be better off if the younger folks emulated their older colleagues instead of the other way around.

While standing in line at the bank last week, I overheard a 20-something employee talking to his boomer colleague about a concert he had attended over the weekend. “It was bad-ass!” he exclaimed, loud enough for the entire line of waiting customers to hear. I couldn’t believe my ears when the decades-older banker replied, “Yeah, my weekend was bad-ass, too!”

In fact, my reaction to this conversation was so negative that I thought about it and talked about it for days. Okay, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I don’t feel comfortable having my money handled by anyone who—while within earshot of customers—describes his weekend as “bad-ass.” Could it be that I trust only silver-haired prep-school patricians who steer clear of slang to protect my savings? My intellect reasoned that a banker who uses the term “bad-ass” could be just as stalwart in his duties. Could it be that I, a resident of the “Socialist Republic of Berkeley,” might be more conservative than I’d like to admit? As I wrestled with all of this, a simple truth emerged: young or old, I don’t want a “bad-ass” banker!

In early times, when the younger generation entered the workforce, they emulated their elders in speech, dress, and behavior. But the tables have turned and the older generations are now copying the younger ones in a desperate attempt to remain youthful, cool, and cutting edge. All around me I hear Boomers and Gen X’ers imitating the slang and diction of their younger counterparts. A few months ago, I listened to a panel of women professionals who sounded more like Southern California valley girls than experts. The problem was simple: upward inflection. The panelists turned each statement into a question by raising their pitch at the end of every sentence, which made their speech sing-songy—often adding, “Right?” when they finished saying something. The panelists sounded unsure of themselves, as if they were seeking approval, rather than coming across as confident and in command.

Lately I’ve been catching myself sprinkling “ya know” between my sentences, as though I’m asking my listener for agreement or approval (which, by the way, I’m really not). Yuk! And, yes, I’m also guilty of overusing the most unlikable and misused word in the English language. Like, ya know which word I’m, like, talking about, right?

Obviously, Millennials, Gen Y’ers, Gen X’ers, and Boomers all have plenty to offer in the workplace. The younger generations bring tech saviness, energy, curiosity, and enthusiasm. The older generations provide invaluable job skills, long-term client relationships, life experience, and historical perspective. But when it comes to language usage and habits of speech, we would all be better off if the younger folks emulated their older colleagues instead of the other way around. Regardless of your age or the industry in which you are employed, here are some tips for making the workplace a little less “bad-ass” and a bit more dignified the next time you communicate:

KICK THE LIKE HABIT
This habit might seem impossible to shake, but don’t worry! With greater self-awareness and practice you can start sounding like the expert you really are. Many of us have had to work hard to shake off an accent (in my case, a cheese-steak thick Philadelphia accent), so believe me when I tell you that kicking the “like” habit is also doable. I suggest taping yourself describing a conversation (you can do this privately or with a friend), then replay and notice how often you insert “like” into your sentences. Pinpoint where you use misuse the word: Is it when you’re quoting someone? When you’re thinking or needing to pause? Is it a way for you to fill the silence? If it’s the latter, try speaking more slowly and deliberately. Using pauses, deep breaths, and imagining that you are talking to someone who speaks little English can help you slow down and shake the “like” habit. For more ideas on how to, like, stop saying “like,” check out this great wikihow article.

GET RID OF UPWARD INFLECTION
Upward inflection, just like gross misuse of the word “like,” can be detrimental to careers—sufferers may not be taken seriously or may be seen as lacking the necessary confidence to climb the workplace ladder. First, read a few declarative sentences into a tape recorder. Listen to hear if you are saying them as a statement of fact or as a question. If you sound like you are asking a question, then you are upward inflecting at the end of the sentence. To change your speech patterns, say out loud, “I need to convince them of this!” and then immediately repeat the sentence to practice downward intonation. For example, people with an upward inflection habit will take a statement like, “This is a good budget!” and say it as though they were asking a question, “This is a good budget?” Repeat your statement several times until you can say it without the question mark.

BE SENSITIVE WHEN USING SLANG
Adjusting your communication style so that each audience will understand and relate to you is what I call “chameleon communication.” For example, a rampant texter probably doesn’t email his grandmother using the same abbreviations and emoticons used when texting friends. Instead, he uses expressions she will understand. Apply this same logic to the workplace—coworkers and clients from different generations may not know what certain slang words mean or might find them offensive. Listen to yourself carefully. If you use words like “bad-ass” or “awesome” or “dude” at work, make some speech adjustments—like, fast!

USE PROPER SPELLING AND GRAMMAR
The popularity of texting and instant messaging has made us all a little lackadaisical when it comes to writing complete, grammatically-correct sentences. And too many of us have become lazy, relying on spell check to catch mistakes instead of proofing our missives. But your spell checker doesn’t catch common spelling errors like writing “they’re” when you mean “their” or “here” when you mean “hear.” The bottom line is this: If you use abbreviations, emoticons, and misspellings in your workplace communication, you will appear unprofessional. Unless you are using a commonly accepted professional abbreviation, spell the word out. Make certain to proof all your written communication, and for really important documents, proof several times or ask a colleague to look over the copy for spelling and grammar mistakes. For younger folks who are new the workplace, attempting to imitate the writing tone of more experienced colleagues can be helpful in shaping your own communication style.