Communication Confusion

Last night, a group of us were at an event when the conversation turned to punctuation and communication. This isn’t unusual. My friends and I have debated a number of punctuation-related issues, such as the appropriate use of exclamation points, the correct application of “apostrophe s,” and the new emphasis on the “em dash.” Some might find it surprising–and, frankly, boring–that lawyers would discuss punctuation and communication at a social function, but they really shouldn’t: attorneys will argue about anything, and lawyers arguing about punctuation and communication tools is like most people arguing about sports.

The conversation last night, though, was a bit different because some of the firm’s younger attorneys were involved. And it quickly became clear that these earnest twenty-somethings pay extremely careful attention to the crafting of the written messages they receive and the mode of communication employed, too. When they report to another lawyer and receive a “Thanks.” response, versus the more enthusiastic “Thanks!” reply, it has an impact on them. And they explained that a terse “thx” would be viewed as exceptionally dismissive, and perhaps even veering into the “personal affront” category.

Moreover, these thoughtful folks aren’t just reacting to punctuation and abbreviations, they also have views on messages conveyed the mode of communication. Email is viewed as the appropriate channel for work communication, and texting is for personal communication, so if you get a work-related communication via text that tells you something important. The “chat” function on our firm’s “Teams” application is somewhere between those two on the spectrum of work versus personal, and the use of the messaging function during a Teams video call has an etiquette all its own. And that doesn’t even begin to capture the complexities introduced by social media or, for that matter, emoticons or memes.

This discussion caused me to mentally revisit my recent communications to consider whether I have inadvertently engaged in communications that might be perceived as rude or intrusive into personal spaces. I typically send a “Thanks!” response, so I think I am OK in avoiding that faux pas, and I don’t really text about work matters. But the ever-changing rules of the game can be a bit overwhelming for an old guy whose career began in an era before email, cellphones, and social media were invented.

One important thing to remember is that communication is a two-way street, and that implicit messages that one party might read into a communication may well not be intended by a sender who is ignorant of the latest practices and sensibilities. Training on the new rules and tools would probably be advisable for fogies like me.

Generational Monikers

I’ve never understood the silly urge to coin names for “generations” — which basically seems to exist because, once you name a “generation,” you can make grossly overbroad generalizations about the people who are members.

It started with the “Baby Boomers,” which in my view shows just how stupid the generational naming is. “Baby Boomers” include anyone born between the end of World War II and 1964. That’s my generation, although my personal experience as someone born in the late ’50s is a lot different from someone born in the late ’40s. I wasn’t at risk of serving in Vietnam, for example, I didn’t go to any Beatles concerts, and I didn’t participate in any anti-war protests. Nevertheless, I’m designated as in that “generation” that is supposed to be hopelessly narcissistic and self-absorbed and now has become the source of the “OK, Boomer” putdown that younger generations like to use.

I think the Boomers were the first example of a named “generation.” And because sociologists thought that was a good idea, they gave names to other generations–including the “Silent Generation” that came before the Boomers, with members who had somehow been able to live their lives without a generational name until somebody decided, post-Boom, to give them one. Then came “Generation X,” immediately after the Baby Boomers, followed by “Millennials” (also apparently known as “Generation Y”), then “Generation Z.”

Now CNN is suggesting that the little kids of today–as part of the as-yet unnamed generation coming after “Generation Z”–should be called “Generation C,” because their outlook on life has been permanently transformed (and scarred) by the COVID pandemic. You can make the same arguments about how stupid it is to generalize about an entire generation, some of whom may well have been traumatized by COVID while others have simply accepted the changes and gone on with their kid lives without much concern. But the core point is how unfair it is to give a generation a name based on a disease. The coronavirus period has been tough, but it shouldn’t define a generation of little kids who will now be expected, going forward, to all be brittle and hyper safety conscious.

Can we please stop giving “generations” stupid names and generalizing about their members and their experiences?

Last Line Of Defense

When death visits your family, it inevitably causes you to think more soberly about your own mortality.  It’s morbid, sure — but it’s also human nature.

For young people, of course, death seems very remote and abstract.  It’s something that happens to extremely old people — ancient, really — and seems to come on a generation-by-generation basis.  Typically, that is exactly what happens.  If you are surrounded by parents, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and even in my case a great-grandparent, it is as if there are multiple generational shields protecting you from the inevitable.

But as the world turns and those older generations are winnowed down, you become uncomfortably aware that your turn at the wheel is drawing nearer.  When your last surviving grandparent dies, you know the scythe will be swinging one generation closer.  Then, as parents pass, you become much more sensitive to the health of those uncles and aunts who represent the tattered remains of that final generational ring of fortification.  In the Webner family, unfortunately, we’re now down to exactly one uncle and one aunt.

So live long and prosper, Uncle Mack and Aunt Corrine!  You’re my last line of defense.

Technology, Timekeeping, And The King’s English

Big Ben

Big Ben

The standard clock — with its hour hand and minute hand, its twelve Arabic or Roman numerals, and its soothing metronomic ticking — is quickly becoming an endangered species. Think for a moment about how often you see a standard clock face any more. To the extent that commercial establishments have any kind of timekeeping device (and many of them don’t any longer) it is as likely to be a digital device as a clock. Many younger people don’t wear wristwatches; they use their cell phone, or I Phone, or Blackberry to tell the time. No doubt digital clocks are more precise than old-fashioned clocks.  They don’t need to be wound and there is no doubt what the exact time is. With a digital clock the time is not “about 7:30,” it is 7:28, or 7:32.

This is one of those small cultural intersections where technological changes are altering society in subtle and unexpected ways. We are quickly becoming a country in which different generations talk about time in different ways. Every person above, say, 25 years of age learned to tell time by the hands of clock and describes the time through that frame of reference; many younger people didn’t learn those same lessons and don’t give the time in that way. Tell a teenager that you will meet them at a quarter till 8 and you may well get a puzzled expression and a follow up question asking you to explain what the heck you are talking about. If you meant 7:45, why didn’t you just say so?

We may be seeing he passage of the standard clock into the mists of time, but we can salute it for having left our language a bit richer. “Clockwise” and “counterclockwise” are very useful concepts if you want to tighten or loosen a bolt. Who hasn’t said some hyperactive person was “wound up,” or that they wished they could “turn back the clock”? We wonder what “makes something tick,” and we marvel at a well-built car that “runs like clockwork.” Would Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon be as memorable without the ticking clock or the rich, resonant gong of Big Ben?