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.
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.
- Praise good eye contact — Is your child comfortable ordering for him or herself in a restaurant? Does he or she pay for things by going up to a countertop and interacting with a live human at a register? If you observe your children making good eye contact, speaking clearly and loudly enough, recognize this behavior. These are the wonderful opportunities to sharpen the tools for interacting with elders.
- Let them make decisions and articulate why — I can assure you that plenty of college students have no idea how to register for classes as their parents have done so for them. They are of age to drive, vote, serve in the military, and some of them to buy alcohol, but their parents are still making the lion’s share of their decisions. The more young people are empowered to make decisions and to explain their rationale, the more equipped for adulthood, where one needs to stand by his/her own decisions (rather than shrug and say, “I don’t know, my mom did it for me.”)
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?).