Generational differences complicate communication

family digital communications

Warning! The period at the end of this sentence is not a symbol for how I feel right now. I am not angry or upset; it’s just correct grammar. In fact, none of the punctuation used in this blog evokes how I feel.

I run through that explanation since members of Gen Z, including my own children, read a lot into what kind of punctuation is being used or not used. Unknown to me, until recently, the use of a period at the end of a text message sends the signal I am upset about something.

What? I asked my Gen Z daughter about it. True, she said, without as much of an exclamation mark to complete her texted response.

Scott Zimmer, a generational expert and speaker, shared insights that stopped me in my editor’s tracks at last month’s National Philanthropy Day organized by the Association of Fundraising Professionals — Northeast Wisconsin Chapter. Zimmer explained how the generations in today’s workforce — Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials and Gen Z — work and communicate differently. While Boomers, Gen X and Millennials may not be the same, there is enough overlap that effective communication still happens.

But when it comes to Gen Z — those born between 1997 to 2012 — everything changes. As the first social generation who grew up from a young age with access to the Internet and portable digital technology and also had their educational experiences upended due to the pandemic, Gen Z looks at communication differently — they think digital first. They are also the first generation who have not adapted the communication style of previous generations, but rather expect other generations to adapt to their preferences.

To illustrate his point, Zimmer shared a text message exchange between a CEO and an intern as part of his presentation. The Gen Z intern sent a text message with exclamation points and emojis asking if he should pick up some coffee for him. The Gen Xer replied with two complete sentences with punctuation, including ending with “Thank you.”

The intern mistook the CEO’s reply as a sign he was upset with him. The intern went so far as to approach the CEO before a presentation he was making to ask what he had done wrong given the tone of his text. Apparently, using punctuation and not using emojis sent the message his boss was less than pleased. The intern viewed the lack of exclamation points and emojis as part of a normal, professional conversation to evoke intent. (As an aside, check with a member of Gen Z before using an emoji since they may interpret it quite differently than what you intended.)

So, I ran my own experiment. While driving my 18-year-old daughter home from college, I asked what message I’m sending because I use periods. She said it didn’t mean anything since she knows I’m particular about grammar (it comes along with the job.) My daughter went on to explain if a friend used a period at the end of a text that it definitely implied they were upset. She never uses periods in her texts to friends unless there are multiple sentences, but she knew when communicating via text with an “older person” those periods are needed.

So, why does it matter if Gen Z interprets the use of punctuation and emojis differently than previous generations? That’s simple to answer — if employees view the use of periods in a text message differently, it can lead to misunderstandings and tension in the office at a time when such exchanges can lead to employees leaving their jobs.

While I and other members of Gen X will not stop using punctuation marks and Gen Z likely won’t adapt their communication style to ours, it’s imperative we all recognize the differences and provide a little grace. I’ll try not to read too much into a text message lacking periods and filled with exclamation points if Gen Z understands a period after “thank you” in an email or text means I’m grateful and not upset, demanding or some other negative feeling.

Communications Manager MaryBeth Matzek has more than 25 years of journalism experience.