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Written by: Regina Brodersen

Recently I attended a diversity workshop and one group practice involved telling your counterpart what you had done since getting up in the morning until the arrival at the session. But…… we were supposed to double the verbs with similar verbs. For example : “I got up/jumped out of bed and brushed/cleaned my teeth and took/completed a shower. I then made/prepared breakfast etc.” It was evident that our stories became abbreviated, our communication style was halting and there were many pauses of frustration trying to find a suitable similar verb. Moral of the story? This experience is similar to the one experienced by many newcomers to Canada when trying to communicate in a foreign language. Attempting to find the right words can be frustrating for both parties in the conversation. This little exercise illustrated how communication can be challenging, in the workplace or in other situations. 

The same frustration can sometimes be felt by baby boomers trying to decipher text messages from millenials: “np” no problem, “ty” (thank you) and “yw” (you're welcome). “nvm” (never mind) “idk” (I don’t know), “brb” (be right back) and finally “gtg” (got to go). The new jargon also conveys spontaneous emotion and personal expressions (“o rly”, “omg'). This all started many years ago, boomers and Generation Xers will recall the TGIF shout-out on Fridays. This remained for the longest time the only noteworthy abbreviation in the workplace. Technological innovation grew by leaps and bounds and we now text profusely but in a shorthand mode which makes sense given the challenges with the small touch screens and the sometimes outlandish suggestions when typing a word. 

Communication has a variety of connotations depending on who you ask. There is a manager who sends out many email messages with information and thinks that all is well, while the team doesn’t take time to read the email (because of too much text or information) and would prefer to be called or met with. Just because a message was sent doesn’t mean it was received, and if received, might have been understood differently. We live in a world with too much information which has to be waded through until the real message comes across. Managers and supervisors have to find out what type of communication works with each individual in their team. New Canadians might need a more formal approach as compared with a Canadian-born Millenial. 

I like the personal communication best and make an attempt to visit colleagues in their offices rather than pick up the phone. However, if I have to contact a colleague who is traveling I will text rather than email even both messages would arrive at the same time on their smartphone. But people will immediately react to a text as it shows up on the smartphone screen even if it is in “sleep” mode. My chances of receiving a quick reply have increased tremendously.  

Another challenge to be aware of is using colloquialisms with new Canadians. I heard the story about a workplace where quite a few female employees became pregnant around the same time. The statement “there must be something in the water” caused one of the employees, a recent immigrant, to bring her own bottled water to work until the misunderstanding was cleared up. During another workshop I took on diversity we were split into groups and shared colloquialisms from our home countries. It was amazing that even similar expressions could mean something totally different. Telling jokes that require a shared culture is another pitfall that quite a few individuals encounter and I have avoided telling jokes that can be misinterpreted, or where the context and cultural innuendo has to be explained to such an extent that the punch line gets buried. 

A starting point to effective communication would be to ask what means are preferred among employees or within a team. Furthermore we should attempt to find out whether a message was received in the way that it was intended. Communication modes as well as content need context, understanding of cultural and generational differences and last but not least a genuine desire to get to know the person on a level that goes beyond the business or work relationship. Diversity training is a good start to reducing barriers to communication and will provide a better understanding across sociological, cultural and generational boundaries. Just sayin’.