Teen Talk in the Workplace
Like the declining cost of a personal computer, the dumbing down of the English language in the workplace has continued its steady pace. But unlike the now more affordable PCs, the plummeting level of workplace communication is no bargain.
Several times in retail stores I’ve heard twenty-something store employees greet middle-aged customers with, “Hey – what’s up?” “What’s up?” Well, certainly not the employee’s IQ. Sure, he could have said something uncool and pedestrian like, “Hi. How can I help you?” But instead he chose a greeting used by the young and the restless which has its roots in a 1990s Budweiser commercial. “What’s up?” Just exactly how do these employees confuse a customer interaction with a social gathering of the boys?
I’ve also noticed that many waiters and waitresses greet elderly couples in restaurants with some variation of “How are you guys doing?” “You guys?” Granted, these days, most of us (including me) use the hermaphroditic-like “guys” to include people of either gender and it’s become something of a casual term of endearment in these days. But at the risk of sounding a bit old-fashioned, don’t you think a couple in their 70’s have earned the right to be addressed by a service providing stranger as something other than “you guys?” It’s a little lower on the phonetic faux pas scale than is “What’s up?” but in my book it’s still lacks a certain civility and respect for an older generation that does not speak that way.
And at the risk of sounding like the pursed lipped English teacher from Hell grousing about grammar like a serial whiner, I do need to call out what is perhaps the most pervasive threat to business verbal communication. It involves the words “go” and “like.”
I hear an increasing number of otherwise intelligent people in the business world talk as if they were teenagers at the mall, who regularly substitute the words “go” and “like” for the word “said.” For example:
Employee #1 – “I saw Rick from Systems yesterday and so I go, ‘Hey, Rick. I’m having trouble with my printer.’”
Employee #2 – “What did he say?”
Employee #1 – “Nothing, so, I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with it?’ And then he goes, ‘Oh, it’s a software problem.’ And then I’m like, ‘So when can you fix it?’ And he just stood there. So I went, ‘I have a presentation at noon today.’ And so then he’s like, ‘Oh, we’ll get to it.’ So I’m like, ‘Can you get to it this morning?’ And he goes ‘We’ll see.’”
That is truly head-hurting dialogue and I hear it all the time. That particular verbal virus seems to have stricken people at all levels throughout the business world. Puerile prattle like that is everywhere and it’s getting worse as more young ‘uns enter the workforce. Here’s a challenge – listen for it and count the number of times you hear it in the next few days. Do we need a Chief Literacy Officer in every company to ensure that employees and executives don’t slip into that insidious teen talk when having work-related conversations?
Okay, I’ll admit that there are really important things happening in the business world today: The economic recovery; continued unemployment; the right of beer company employees in Denmark to drink on the job. This linguistic laziness in the workplace, as annoying as it is, does not mean an end to civilization as we know it.
But I think it does matter. Slang and colloquial language can be colorful and often appropriate for work, but eviscerating the language is never in fashion. It’s just not a good idea to adopt Facebook patois as the communication standard for the workplace.
Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm
and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org