GREETING 1: ‘Shall we be partners?’
A bit blunt, but it was paired-assignment-time. I looked eagerly at the student sitting next to me.
The student surveyed the tutorial room, scanning for other offers, but all those fluent in their language were busy—I received a reluctant nod. We examined the assignment together and, like the perfect parent, I praised their fast-flowing ideas. From the outside this looked like a productive partnership but from within, communication was stunted and awkward.
Over that week my emails were ignored. And, at the next tutorial, my partner sat in the corner—busy working with a person their own age. I was partnerless.
The generation gap gaped at me in hindsight. Why did I use the word ‘shall’? Why was I so enthusiastic? I should have seen this coming: of course a young person would want to be partnered with another young person.
As a Gen-Xer, I expected to be kept informed (and that’s my language right there), after all, isn’t it cowardly not to tell someone how you feel to their face, or via email at least (yep, still me).
As a Gen-Zer, my ex-partner sent me their effortless message without inflicting pain, after all, it’s a waste of time to send a message when the message is that you don’t want to send a message.
This was about expectations—I had anticipated age-based rejection at some point at university and I was trying hard to prevent it. Maybe too hard.
Working against bias isn’t new to me. Throughout my business career I have found myself railing against inequality and gendered insults such as ‘like a girl’, ‘ladies’, ‘b**ch’ and ‘nag’. Calling out the boob-talkers, the door-openers, the flatterers, the interrupters, the bullies, and the red-faced shouters became a personal goal from the beginning. But I was completely unaware and ignorant of ageism.
Until—in my 40s—I was awarded my very own invisibility cloak. By a woman, older than me. Both of us complicit in a system that values youth over experience.
GREETING 2: ‘Hi, are you my new partner?’
We met at the university café: the partnerless dregs of the topic—the leftovers.
I was nervous, having failed my first attempt at academic collaboration. And it was obvious this new partner could speak the language of my previous partner, but due to something (courage, life-skills, no choice) this partnership prevailed.
I managed my expectations, ignoring the two-word text messages, lack of timely responses, and salutation etiquette. They ignored my incessant editing, hearing difficulties, and verbosity. We nailed that assignment and we nailed the generational greeting-and-expectation-gap.
GREETING 3: ‘What are you doing for lunch?’
Smiling. Eye contact. Wrinkles. This conversation would be in my language.
That question was posed after a tutorial and before a lecture, perfect timing for a calorific chit-chat. We discussed creativity, academia, active listening and the art of storytelling. Two Gen-Xers who instinctively knew that an invitation to lunch is an invitation to talk. That’s all. I may have balked at that question posed by a Gen-Z, Millennial, or Baby Boomer. Was it just our age that brought us together?
Words Have Power
There’s comfort in language, in word choices, and conversing with others. In 2019 at a Flinders University seminar, Hannah Kent, award-winning author and Flinders University Alumni, said, ‘The written word is more than ornamental: it can sustain people.’
Whether written, verbalised, imagined, or depicted, words portray much about a person, a culture, and an era. Words keep us alive, and not just practically (watch out for that snake), but spiritually too. Communication is sustenance. The written word matters so much that some require other symbols to soften the blow, like this: f**k and s**t.
American comedian, George Carlin said, ‘These words have no power. We give them this power by refusing to be free and easy with them.’
Carlin went on to construct a list of ‘Seven Dirty Words’—words that must not be said publicly because they only have one context. He said them and got arrested. That was 1972 and those words did have power. They incited action (sadly, a familiar phrase in January 2021).
Today’s list of inappropriate words continually changes according to time, source, culture, usage, history, and intent.
In 2014 TIME magazine compiled a list of words that various people and groups have banned or suggested to ban, from ‘tornado’ in 1883 to ‘n**ger’ in 2014. Other words on trial in that article include bossy, selfie, b*tch, ho, fail, lesbian, and housewife.
In 2018 as part of Spirit of Inclusion month, QANTAS staff were given an information package with suggestions on words to avoid like husband or wife (use spouse or partner), mum or dad (use parents), and Australian settlement (use colonisation, occupation, or invasion).
In 2020, Dictionary.com’s list of offensive words includes: spirit animal, Sherpa, guru, ninja, Nazi, bingeing, scalping, gyp, and hysterical (I might like to add ‘OK Boomer’ as ageist and divisive). If these words are bandied about in light-hearted ways, ignorant of etymology, they have the power to offend.
I know I’ve used some of these words in ignorance (on this website even). Now comes the dilemma. Do I go back and erase my guilt, revise history, and pretend all is well, or do I highlight it? I could say: This was wrong. I am sorry for my ignorance. Now I know and I will do better.
It’s hard to keep abreast of what is and isn’t appropriate. But if we stick to the language of our own generation—blinkered to all others—we may remain forever ignorant.
GREETING 4: Smile.
On our final day of tutorials, my original partner from Greeting 1 handed me a worksheet. I was next in line and surprised they’d relinquished their safe seat in the corner. They smiled at me and it translated into my language. It was whatever I wanted it to be: it’s forgotten, I’m sorry, I forgive you, we’re classmates, we’re human, use this language. Smile.
‘We all smile in the same language,’ is a quote attributed to many in varying degrees and is popular in print, art galleries, music, academic studies, and in times of conflict as a white flag.
A smile is the herald of joy, the split second of human recognition. When used in greeting, a smile can be translated freely: no language necessary, no age limits, no restrictions. No gaps.
This is a good place to start.