How to Speak to a Gen Zennial
by Fiona Burke
by Fiona Burke
For younger generations today, language has become an interesting blend of hyperbole and hedging: We take things to extremes (“I’m screaming” instead of just “haha” or “lol”) while also adding multiple layers of qualification (“I kind of almost feel like…”).
It can be difficult to understand, much less speak. For those lacking in the lexicon of the youth, here’s a step-by-step guide to get you started.
Step 1: Start with “I” language: I’m
Step 2: Take what should be figurative and make it literal: Literally
Step 3: Then, come in hot with an extremely intense verb. Choose one: Scream, Die, Starve
Step 4: But don’t commit too much. Choose one: Kind of, almost, I feel like
Step 5: Add in something unnecessary and confusing: lol
Congrats – you’re done!
Following the instructions above, you might have generated a sentence like: “I’m literally starving I feel like lol.” And if you know someone between the ages of 14 and 26 you’ve probably heard that exact sentence or gotten that exact text.
Overly-intensified language like “I’m dying” or “I’m going to stab the next person who says ‘these are unprecedented times’” have been common for some time. And it’s been seven years since some dictionaries started recognizing alternate definitions of “literally” that indicate the exact opposite of its traditional meaning. Merriam-Webster characterizes this misuse as a form of extreme hyperbole. This “misuse” of the word goes back to the literary heights of James Joyce and Charlotte Brontë.
The social coding that underlies the use of superfluous hedging is also nothing new. Softening your opinions or even your assertion of facts with phrases like “I feel like…” or “I almost think…” is, for some, a subtle way to build rapport with the listener.
You’ve probably heard that hedging of this kind can be maladaptive in certain contexts; for example, in the workplace it can make speakers lack control over the situation. However, according to linguist Deborah Tannen, it originated as a social tool developed at a young age—particularly for girls—to help the speaker seem humble: “Girls learn to downplay ways in which one is better than the others and to emphasize ways in which they are all the same.”
While neither hyperbolic language nor excessive hedging are new, integrating both language patterns into the same sentence has become increasingly common. Perhaps the increased use of digital forms of communication has meant we can be a little more liberal with our use of adjectives and colorful language while we sit, stone-faced, on our couches. Meanwhile, digital communication makes it more necessary to soften your language, as tone can’t be heard in a text, Slack, or email, and people still have feelings.
Regardless of the reasoning, this is the lingo of the youngins right now. Whether you’re trying to write relatable social media content or just trying to score cool points with “the youths,” you may need to learn this delicate balance.
However, be warned: there’s no shortage of cringeworthy examples of companies or organizations trying to communicate with younger audiences by adjusting their speech yet ultimately missing the mark. When a brand tries and fails in this way, it usually stems from the perception of having tried too hard (authenticity is a highly valued trait among younger groups). Some words of advice:
The instinct is often to either over do it or to edit content down into the same corporate, professional voice we all know and love—but if you strike the right balance, your brand could be the stuff of cult obsession (the notorious MoonPie Twitter account is one of the best examples). The hyperbole-hedging mix may seem like an insignificant speech pattern or a fad, but it could also be the difference between making an authentic connection with younger audiences or not.
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