OK, Zoomer: A GenZ Guide to Intergenerational Communication

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6 minutes


A smiling young blonde lady shows her smart phone to a fascinated white-haired woman
It's important to be aware of how different people prefer to communicate.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio via Pexels

These days, it’s difficult to imagine a world where technology and connectivity don’t play such an integral part of our lives. We can talk to our appliances, get just about anything delivered to our doorsteps in a matter of days, and have all of our questions answered immediately by asking our phones.

But it wasn’t always like this. Growing up in the eighties and nineties, I can remember sifting through volumes and volumes of encyclopedias to find possibly-outdated information on any given topic. As a child, our family had a single phone, which was tethered to the wall, and television had to be watched live.

But as a teenager and young adult, I embraced exciting new technologies as they became available (and when I could afford them). I am a Xennial, and my superpower is bridging the generational gap that such accelerated technological advancement has created. And a significant part of that gap is the way in which we communicate. So let’s break it down.

First, let’s start by defining the main generational groups with whom you’re likely to interact as an Exchange Visitor in the United States. 

Baby Boomers are those who were born during the population explosion that occurred when American troops returned home from the battlefields of the Second World War (roughly 1946-1964). They are now in their 60s and 70s, and many are still active in the workforce.

Generation X refers to those individuals born between 1965 and 1980. The letter “X” is actually the Roman numeral ten, as it was estimated the people born during this period were more or less the tenth generation born after American independence in 1776.

Millennials are those who experienced the dawning of the new millennium (Y2K, as we called it then) during their formative years. Born between 1981 and 1996, this is the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like computers, mobile phones, and gaming consoles.

Finally, let’s talk about you: GenZ (or Zoomers as some have begun to call you). Your generation - born between 1996 and 2012 - has grown  up completely immersed in advanced technology and connectivity. Because of this connectivity and ability to share ideas across cultures, GenZ is not a uniquely American generation. Most InterExchange participants currently fall into this group.

As I mentioned before, I consider myself a Xennial - which may or may not be a real thing - and is theorized to be a “microgeneration” that maintains many GenX social values while embracing the same technology as the Millennials. This gives us a unique dual perspective of the world.

Now with that background in mind, let’s talk about communication styles and how they differ. Note that these are generalizations that will not be true for everyone of a specific age.

Let’s start with the Baby Boomers. Compared to younger people today, they tend to be more formal in the way they communicate - and expect the same in return. Although English doesn’t have formal and informal conjugations like some other languages, Baby Boomers expect young people to speak politely, using words like “sir,” “ma’am,” and “please,” and avoid the use of slang or profanity. Although many have accounts on Facebook, they tend to view it as a place to connect with friends and family and not an appropriate place for work-related or other important conversations. A phone call is usually preferred over a text message. And while many use email, they expect thoughtful, prompt replies. The same goes for voicemail - don’t forget to set up your inbox and check messages regularly!

A formal email thanking Mr. Smith for dinner.
Baby Boomers tend to appreciate well-structured messages over one-line emails.

Baby Boomers tend to appreciate well-structured messages over one-line emails.

Much like the Baby Boomers, GenXers were late adopters of technology and have varying levels of comfort with it. Many have multiple social media accounts, but still don’t consider it an appropriate place for professional conversations. They often have busy lives and would prefer a text over a phone call. They may even prefer that you call them by their first names. If you’re not sure, just ask. How do you prefer to be referred to? What’s the best way to contact you?

Most InterExchange host family parents and host employers pertain to Generation X or our next category: Millennials. Millennials still remember when MTV played music. They witnessed - and largely participated in - the explosion of the Internet, smart devices, and social networking. Millennials are more interested in to-the-point communication than pleasantries. Text messages are often the preferred form of communication, and voicemail is seen as a nuisance. They’ll often like to be on a first-name basis with their peers and younger people (and may even dislike being called sir or ma’am). Overall, Millennials are interested in efficiency and embrace new technology that makes work and life easier.

It’s worth noting that many Americans feel uncomfortable with silence in a group setting and make “small talk” - conversation about inconsequential topics like sports or weather - to eliminate the awkwardness. (This can be a great opportunity to practice your English skills and contribute to the flow of communication in the workplace.)

And now to the so-called Gen Z: I am writing this for you. You are already revolutionizing and will continue to mold the way humans communicate in the future. But the world isn’t yours just yet. It’s still important to be mindful of generational differences and how you connect with others - especially in a professional environment. Here are a few tips to ensure smooth communication across multiple generations:

  1. Write in complete sentences. It shows that you respect the person enough to devote a few extra keystrokes to your message.

  2. Use emojis sparingly. Sometimes nuances like body language and intonation can be lost in an email or text message, and a single emoji might be appropriate to show the intention behind your message. Using them unnecessarily, however, might come across as unprofessional.

  3. Avoid using slang. Casual language–at least in English–evolves very quickly. These expressions can easily be misinterpreted.

  4. Use the proper channels. This may even mean talking on the phone. If you’re visiting the USA, keep in mind that messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram are less common here. Ask your employer, colleagues, or host family about communication expectations.

  5. Understand nonverbal communication. Body language plays a big role in how your attitude is perceived. Be careful you don’t look standoffish, insecure, or uninterested in conversation. 

  6. Be mindful of your online presence. For most Baby Boomers and GenXers, privacy is highly valued. If you’re “oversharing” on Instagram, they may question how serious you are about things like work and education.

Of course, this is merely scratching the surface of the very complex and nuanced layers of communication. In closing, I leave you with three universal truths: good posture goes a long way, eye contact is key, and, when in doubt, send an email.

What to learn more about different generations in American culture? Check out this short video by Ryan Jenkins:

Matthew Graves

A fan of independent cinema and proponent of the Oxford comma, Matthew began his career at a Miami-based tech startup before returning to West Virginia University to pursue his M.A. in World Languages. He has worked at InterExchange since 2006 and currently serves as a Brand Marketing Manager.

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