Yes, boomers and millennials can—and should—learn to speak the same language

Online communication, including instant messaging, seems to have agitated the generational divide in the workplace.

According to experts, the bad news is everyone needs to learn how to bridge that gap. The good news is, with the resources available, and the occasional face-to-face meeting, it's not too hard to do.

Kevin Hu, a PhD candidate at MIT who studies data visualization, knows that it's possible for generations to connect online. He known it from his research—but he also knows it from his mom.

Pictured: Kevin Hu and Travis Rich wave in a GIF taken at MIT.

Hu's mom is the one who turned him on to WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app that makes heavy use of emojis and stickers.

"She has more friend groups than I can even hope for," Hu said. "They are all extremely fluent in using the app."

That's not uncommon, Hu explained. He and his fellow research Travis Rich, is behind GIFGIF, a comprehensive database that could serve as a tool for brushing up on the meaning of different popular GIFs—an acronym for Graphics Interchange Format, a compression format for images.

The website, built on technology used by the MIT Media Lab, has found that while the pop-culture references of GIFs may not be universal, people tend to agree on quite a precise definition on the emotion being expressed in any given GIF.

"The fact that they were so cut and dry was surprising to us," Hu said. "We don't define these emotions like shame and contempt, but even those, there wasn't necessarily a lot of individual cultural difference."

Emoji characters on mobile phones.
Miguel Media | AFP | Getty Images

Despite research like Hu's, it's a common complaint that the use of products like Snapchat, Venmo, and other technologies have created communication breakdowns called "micro-generation" gaps.

"In general, many people in their 40s, 50, 60s and beyond—people who grew up before the era of electronic communication—find young employees to be overly informal and inadequately respectful of the relatively higher social ranking of more senior employees," said Monique Valcour, an executive coach.

"Of course, this set of perceptions is nothing new; older people have been finding young people inadequately respectful for centuries. But .... we are at a unique point in the evolution of communication technology," she added.

Indeed, over the past five years, the salutation "sincerely," seems to have lost its sanctity. Messages are now met by a wall of emojis, GIFs, ironic uses of "literally" or "the struggle is real", and the ever incomprehensible reply: "No worries." All workers—millennials and non-millennials—report higher engagement at work when their managers take things offline and meet in-person, a Gallup poll found.

It comes as instant messaging for internal communication is being heralded as the future of work. In a 2012 report by McKinsey Global Institute, social technologies can raise the productivity of workers by 20 to 25 percent. More recently, forty six percent of working adults found digital tools made them more productive, and only 7 percent felt less productive, the Pew Research Center found in 2014.

That enthusiasm has translated into big dollars for the sector. In 2012, "enterprise social" company Yammer was acquired by Microsoft, while rival Slack found itself sitting on a $1 billion valuation.

Older people have been finding young people inadequately respectful for centuries. But .... we are at a unique point in the evolution of communication technology.
Monique Valcour
Executive coach

Messaging also has the potential to change the face of routine office chit-chat, but not in entirely good ways. While informal "watercooler" talk is nothing new at work, the fact that it's all written down is, said Anne Curzan, professor of English at the University of Michigan and linguistic researcher.

"Fast-moving instant message conversations have none of the context that you have face-to-face," Curzan said. "Tone and facial expression are very important to meaning. Stuff can go really wrong ... Emoticons, emojis and what millennials are doing with punctuation is an adaptation to recreate some important parts of context.This is not just a frill."

Formal letters, by contrast, are already structured to compensate for lack of context, Curzan said.

"In formal emails, you don't get to clarify tone, so you are aiming for maximal clarity there, because formal language can't tolerate ambiguity," Curzan said.

Workers simply may be more adept at recognizing the patterns of more formal or informal written word, based on experience (with comes with age), Curzan added.

The effort involved in this activity could be more effectively spent engaging in productive dialogue across generations.
Monique Valcour
Executive coach

Meanwhile, there's a growing universe of solutions designed to help older and younger workers up their messaging game. Like GIFGIF, websites like the World Translation Foundation's Emoji Dictionary provide universal definitions for people looking to brush up on their pictorial vernacular. Additionally, apps like Dango, and soon, iMessage, help users "emoji-fy" their messages in a more automated way.

On the flip side, sites like education platform Udemy offer classes on formal email writing for the younger set. Apps like LikeSo and Ummo help people trim words associated with adolescents, like "basically," "totally" and "like," from their speech.

Along with the cheap or free, resources available online, it's worthwhile for organizations to set the tone with training on communication standards and "reverse mentoring," or when younger employees mentor older ones, Valcour said.

Frustrating as it may be, if the goal is to be a persuasive, helpful member of your team, you need to broaden your repertoire, Curzan said.

"One can master both" traditional and non-traditional communications, Curzan said. "A good writer can switch between the two."