As I was driving to work one recent morning, I heard a commercial for a local mattress company. The owner does the voiceover for his own commercials and has a very distinctive voice. For some reason, I have always tried to listen to his message. On this particular day he was talking about the “value” of his mattresses.
His point was — the word “value” has changed meaning over time. The word “value” has come to symbolize inexpensive, cheap, and maybe even lower quality. Many of his customers asked how he can have a quality product and advertise value.
This blog is not about buying a mattress. It is about English being a living language. Words take on different meanings. For example, “value” literally means relative worth, merit or importance. It does not mean inexpensive or cheap. However, regardless of what the dictionary says, many people hear “dollar value” and associate the word with cheap.
For leaders, it is important to understand what the general population hears when we speak. It is not about what I said, but about what is heard and understood.
We often talk about how baby boomers asked the question “why” in order to be rebellious. There was a tone in their voice. They meant to question authority. They wanted to rebel. So, when a baby boomer receives the question “why,” there is a natural tendency to run that question through their filter. In other words, to hear rebellion (and maybe even disrespect).
However, when a millennial asks the question “why,” they are not questioning authority. They are simply looking for context. English is a living language and the purpose of the word “why” has changed from generation to generation.
This brings me to my most recent observation. And this observation, quite honestly, has been driving me crazy. It wasn’t until I realized the shift in meanings that I was able to get my arms around the issue.
Many baby boomer managers I speak with want to pull their hair out when they ask a millennial to call them and instead they receive a text. I have come to understand that “call” does not always mean pick up the phone. Or, more precisely, it does not mean speaking into the phone, since the phone will be used for the text! While this might seem like a silly and maybe oversimplistic thing, I have noticed how this issue is driving supervisors crazy. English is a living language. Asking someone to “call” you might mean different things to different generations.
In the 21st century, we will need to be more specific. We will need to say things like “I want to talk with you about this” or “speak with me about X.” I’m not sure if these are perfect examples, but I do know the words “call” and “text” mean different things. Leaders will need to be more specific.
This is actually nothing new in our careers. When I started my career and someone asked me to “send over the information,” that meant putting it on a scale to see how much postage was needed! That evolved to a fax, email, attachments, scanning, etc. I can still remember when someone asked to have something sent over and did not even have a fax machine. The US Postal Service had to do.
My point: Language evolves and as a leader, if we want to give clear and concise communications, we need to recognize that English is a living language.
Our goal is to be heard and understood.
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