Do We All Literally Need to Learn to Speak Millennial?

“I literally stayed up all night.” “I literally got angry.” “I literally spent the afternoon at the park.” And I literally can’t tolerate hearing the word, “literally,” anymore.

Is it primarily a Millennial thing, or is abuse of the word, “literally,” something afflicting people of all ages?

It seems like it’s a favorite word of young people who grew up in an age of virtual reality and online worlds, so perhaps they feel expressions such as “real world” and “literally” are needed to distinguish between the virtual or online, and a physical, concrete object or experience.

Whatever the case, use of the word “literally” is just one example of how the language tendencies of the youngest generation may take older employees time to get used to.

But I wonder if, rather than correcting them, we may have no choice but to adopt their ways? They’ll soon be overtaking the rest of us in the workforce, right? Do we have any choice but to comply?

An article in Inc. magazine that I saw last week tickled me (not literally): “12 Speaking Habits that Make Millennials Sound, Like, Literally Unprofessional” by Bill Murphy, Jr. I wonder if he’s a grouchy Generation Xer, like myself. We’re not known for being cheerful enough to find the misuse of words by people younger than ourselves cute. Maybe a peace-and-love hippie would find it endearing.

Murphy notes the tendency of young people he’s encountered to offer, “It seems like my time would best be spent…” That strikes me as funny because it presumes that the person you’re telling this to cares how you think your time would best be spent. A key lesson of growing up (if you’re not a privileged person) is learning that most people don’t care what you think. They care if you’re going to do what you asked them to do. That’s particularly true in the workplace, where the people you encounter usually aren’t friends from your personal life. At best, you grow to become friends based on shared respect, and finding, over time, that you enjoy each other’s company. A manager you’ve never met before, or only known for a few months, often doesn’t want your opinion on how your time “can best be spent.”

When bringing in Millennials, who may have been raised to expect a greater amount of sensitivity to their feelings than your company likely will provide, how do you avoid alienating them? Do you capitulate, and train managers to always say to employees: “Before I give you your assignments for the week, I’d love to hear how you feel your time would best be spent”?

Or do you just train sensitive responses to unasked-for expressions of personal preference? For example: “Jennifer, I appreciate you letting me know that you think your time would best be spent looking for photos of golden retriever puppies online, but I need you to help me organize our archive of existing photos. Maybe after you finish that assignment, we can talk about new photo opportunities.”

Another one pertaining to what many might consider over-sensitivity: The response, “I can’t even.” You tell employees news about a hostile corporate takeover or the bankruptcy of one of your business divisions, and their first response is “I can’t even.” Such as response suggests that the news or information is too much, or too far beyond the pale for the gentle soul to even consider. That’s a stereotype—the dreaded “snowflake” stereotype Millennials have to battle against. I’m a sensitive person myself, so I have a high tolerance for gentle souls, but many managers don’t. How do you train a young employee, who may not be used to exposure to troubling news, to unemotionally process information and come up with a plan?

Do your corporate culture and office environment come with trigger warnings? Many of the college campuses your youngest employees come from do. It’s a vastly different cultural environment than I experienced just 20 years ago. I grew up in a household with an Archie Bunker-like father, who frequently said things many people would be horrified at—not politically correct, as we would say today. And I went to school in the Deep South of Alabama, when it still wasn’t unusual to hear offensive comments about minorities and women. Shocked at first, I learned to just shrug it off as unintentionally hurtful ignorance. Not so today’s Millennials. Older employees—even those of us just 20 to 25 years older than new college graduates—may need to be reminded to be careful in the way we express ourselves and joke around with each other.

“Making not-really-an-excuse excuses” is another Millennial tendency Murphy has noticed. That falls into the presuming-anyone-cares category. The employee apologizes for being late, but doesn’t leave it there, feeling the need to be absolved by telling you why she was late: “My hamster needed emergency care,” “There was a line for the showers at the gym,” “My neighbor was upset and needed to talk about his upcoming art show.” Do managers need to patiently and sympathetically listen to these excuses, or do you train managers to kindly hold employees’ feet to the fire?: “Once in a while it’s OK to be late, but I need you here no later than 9:15, at the latest, every morning.” Is that too cruel a response?

It’s a crueler world than many young people have been conditioned to expect. What is the best approach for a company of older employees and managers to take in introducing young employees to the harsh realities of corporate life?

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