How to help kids interact with elders in a digital era

Of all the classes I’ve taught at the university level, my favorite was a one-credit class for first-year college students. The class was designed to orient students to higher learning and to identify the many resources around campus. During one of the first sessions, I included a slide presentation called “How to College.” The slide that seemed to pique the most interest in my students was based on a hypothetical scenario. In the event of not knowing how to address a professor in an e-mail, I offered a multiple choice set of options as to what the students should do:.

a.) E-mail him/her, opening with a simple “Hey,”
b.) Not address him/her at all, because, scary.
c.) Err on the safe side, and use the salutation of “Hello, Professor” or “Hello, Doctor.”
d.) Just call everyone “Buddy.”
e.) Why would I e-mail a professor? I can just dominate their office hours.

As an academic, I had plenty of digital artifacts to bolster the necessity of this exercise. Over the years, I had received a motley assortment of e-grams from students, from the curt to the overly-formal. I was amazed that so few of these young people appeared to have received any formal training in writing correspondence to an elder (or to someone who signed their paychecks or filed their grades). Then it occurred to me — perhaps they had. It’s just that there was a disconnect between writing a simple thank you note in analog to a grandmother, versus banging out an e-mail on one’s phone. Rather than asking me something minor in person, my students seemed to prefer sending a quick e-mail or finding me on Twitter and shooting me a quick Tweet of inquiry.

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Indeed, there is something that connotes formality in greeting someone in person versus acknowledging their existence on a screen. My students were all digital natives; they had accepted friend requests with the click of a button, and cast their approval votes with digital thumbs-ups and hearts in everyday parlance.

It wasn’t their fault that they did not know how to, for example, inquire politely if they could make an appointment with me to discuss the classes they had missed. Unlike my Generation X and generations before, these students did not grow up with landlines in their homes. They were not used to calling phone numbers and speaking with Adult Interceptors, with whom they would need to oblige small talk while waiting for their friend to pick up. I believe this is a social rite that helps us develop an important muscle for variating our formality in communication. Most languages have a formal tense built into them that is used exclusively with elders and people to whom one defers. English is more fluid, though, and the abbreviative language that so many digital natives have grown up using can sometimes operate as a default. (Punctuating questions to your academic advisor with a nervous “LOL” is not recommended, but also not uncommon.)

So how can parents, especially those launching their digital native kids into their first jobs, into college, and into adulthood help their children communicate confidently and effectively with elders? Here are a few things I am working on with my own biological kids so that (with any luck) they are not committing communication crimes in the future:

  • Encourage them to make actual phone calls to businesses, etc. — Need to schedule a dental appointment and your dentist doesn’t have online booking? Ask your teen to dial up the good doctor’s office. Conveying a need without seeing a person is a skill to master. Further, realizing that this phone call may be interrupting someone who is speaking with other patients in person is a strong reminder that the world does not revolve around our needs and we may have to exercise patience.
Image for post
Image for post
Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Communication is ever-evolving and we are all working to reach across the generations to better understand one another. Along with these skills, let’s remember to carry a portion of compassion for ourselves and our kids on the journey. (LOL?).

Written by

Writer of essays, collector of vintage, reader of books, wife of one, mother of two. Subscribe to my monthly love letter:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store