Can different generations talk to each other?


(MoneyWatch) Every year I teach a class on managing cultural differences. Because my classes are typically full of students from all over the world, I avoid talking about national and cultural groups; there are simply too many landmines and I know I couldn't avoid them all. So instead I give my students a framework through which to identify difference by studying different generations: Veterans, boomers, Gen X and millennials.

Each of these groups, of course, has different values, has been impacted by distinct seminal events and has wildly different expectations of work and life. But what always gets the most attention is the degree to which communication preferences differ -- and the amount of grief this causes at work. Veterans hate texting, boomers dislike Facebook, GenX likes email and millennials prefer Facebook.

But when I poll my students, one thing is absolutely consistent across all the generations: They all love face to face communication. This year, for the first time ever, my classroom survey showed it was overwhelmingly the favored form of communication. Nobody liked texting and very few people liked talking on the phone. But they all liked human intercourse.

I find this rather heartening. It speaks of the technausea that assails each generation after a wave of innovation: A disenchantment with the promise of perfection and the reality of dead batteries, lost connections and mistaken addresses. It also reminds us that chiefly what motivates people at work is each other: The relationships that grow through shared purpose, deadlines, stress and celebration.

I know there are people hard at work trying to design software that gets between two people talking face to face. I'm sure they'll invent something and sell it and we will buy it and hope it magically makes communication easier. In the meantime, I'd recommend that you get up out of your cubicle, walk down the hall to your colleagues and have a conversation. Everything I've seen suggests that that's what they're waiting for.

  • Margaret Heffernan On Twitter»

    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on