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Bridging the Communication Gap

In this article, we will discuss factors pertaining to social styles, generations, and technology, as well as how they impact our daily work lives. Additionally, we will examine how people must understand and acknowledge these various factors that change the way we communicate with coworkers and clients since today’s social climate is ever-evolving due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Bridging the Communication Gap

By Erin Baloch, Caroline Berk, and Ashley Hevener

We hear it all the time: communication is key! This is more than just a cliché, especially when dealing with sensitive issues, such as performance, career, health and safety, or work products. However, communication truly is key when considering the impact that social styles, generations, and technology have on what we say, how we say it, what we hear, and how we hear it! An inherent challenge regarding communication is the environment, which directly impacts the specific mode of communication you use. There are multiple social styles hard-coded into people, further compounded by the fact that today’s workforce includes five generations: Baby Boomers, Generation X, Xennials, Millennials, and Generation Z. With birth years spanning nearly 70 years, from the 1940s to the early 2000s, these five generations experienced vastly different communication styles, depending on experience, timing, and technology. Another “wrench” in this confusing landscape is the technological revolution that continues to revolt! When social styles, impacted by life experience and work environment, are multiplied by generations spanning seven decades and layered with hyper technology bursts, effective and courteous communication becomes increasingly challenging, but necessary and “key.”

In this article, we will discuss factors pertaining to social styles, generations, and technology, as well as how they impact our daily work lives. Additionally, we will examine how people must understand and acknowledge these various factors that change the way we communicate with coworkers and clients since today’s social climate is ever-evolving due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Social Styles Factors

Jonathan Farrington wrote an article called “The 4 social styles” for Think Advisor. In it, he mentions that there are a variety of social styles that differ across regions, countries, and even Federal agencies, and they can be tied to four general categories, according to psychologists David Merrill and Roger Reid. These categories are: driver, analytical, expressive, and amiable.

Some workplaces have a highly direct communication method and expect answers and interactions to be fast, fact-/data-driven, and controlled. These would fall into the “driver” category.  Some people could consider this communication style to be abrupt or rude due to its lack of pleasantries. Occasionally you will encounter a team member whose style is task-oriented, methodical, and “by the book,” which is considered the “analytical” category. Task-oriented communicators are often perceived as unimaginative or stuffy.  Some clients’ personalities seem overly enthusiastic, sociable, and disorganized, which is considered the “expressive” category. Team members and customers might consider this style to be unfocused and think the person is spending too much time talking instead of working. Lastly, you will often work with people who seem to agree with everything you say and are unable to work independently.  This personality would fall into the “amiable” category. People with this style are often perceived as unhurried and unable to contribute anything new to the team. As you can see, regardless of social style type, there can always be a negative perception of or reaction to your approach. Your team’s or client’s leadership may disagree over which approach is most appropriate—cool and calm or fast-paced and head-on—however, there really is not a perfect, one-size-fits-all answer.

If a person does not include a “please” or “thank you” when making a request via e-mail, it is important to recognize that it is not necessarily because they do not respect you; it could simply be that this is how they were trained to send e-mails, without including niceties. Furthermore, if you are waiting for an approval signature from someone and they do not seem to be in a rush to respond, do not immediately react in a negative way by taking their delayed response personally. Double-check to see if you mentioned the request’s level of priority or if it was conveyed with less urgency.

If you receive an e-mail that seems impolite, take a second, a breath, or even a walk before responding to avoid sending an equally impolite response. If necessary, make a quick phone call to ensure that you are accurately understanding their point of view and obtain clarity regarding the disconnect.

Generational Factors

With many people choosing to delay their retirement, it is no surprise that we are seeing a wide variety of speaking, writing, and leadership styles and methods across workforces, both commercial and Federal, due to the range of ages and generations. Some colleagues were raised with typewriters and relied on the postal service to communicate with coworkers and clients, whereas others were born into a world where almost anyone can send a text or instant message across the world in a matter of seconds. One of our Partners mentioned that he was at the cutting edge of technology in college in the 1970s because he had an electric typewriter with self-correcting tape! It is no wonder that there are often communication misunderstandings in the workplace.  Our upbringing and generation inform our communication styles, and these can vary dramatically.

Communication misunderstandings often stem from the use (or lack of) punctuation.  Linguist Gretchen McCulloch wrote an article for Vox called “Is the internet killing language? LOL, no.”  In it, she states:

“For example, a user from [one] generation may use periods at the end of every sentence. A person from another generation may interpret this as passive aggression. You can write the way you want to talk, but we need to have some communication about the means in which you are expressing it to avoid communication difficulties and misinterpretations.”

Punctuation allows people to deliver information with a specific meaning and intent. Working virtually, punctuation can convey an unintentionally negative tone in an e-mail. If receiving an instant message, do you feel more urgency if there are three question marks or just one? Three question marks allow the writer to communicate that they feel strongly about their question or are experiencing extreme confusion in the original message. Conversely, a reader could interpret a message with no punctuation as being noncritical, which could lead to client deadlines being missed. It can be tempting to “abridge” our messages or skip punctuation, especially with today’s seamless devices, but taking the time to double check your work can help you better express your intent, regardless of any generational or situational differences.

What is the word you use the most across text, e-mail, and teleconference platforms when reflecting about your day-to-day communications? The word “okay” will likely be the most-used word for many of you. As shown in the graphic below, the word “okay” is used and interpreted by each generation in various ways. The challenge with this is the lack of instant feedback (via verbal or physical reaction) to ensure your intention is understood. Ask for feedback when the potential for misunderstandings exists to ensure that it does not interfere with the end result.

Technology Factors

Additionally, the method of establishing business partnerships differs based on generational and social styles combined. If you lived in an urban area, there is a higher chance that someone from the Baby Boomer generation or Generation X will ask you to play a round of golf to establish rapport prior to partnering in a business deal. People from these generations may view the time spent together as a way to agree upon terms and rely on a hand-shake deal. The business partner could drop off an invoice because they happened to be in the area, which is considered a common rationale for those generations. Conversely, a Millennial is more likely to send a business agreement through a web-based platform for you to digitally sign. Regardless of the factor utilized, it’s important to remember that relationships remain the most valuable part of getting a deal done.

E-mails were the main means of communication only 10 years ago, but texting and instant messaging have now become normalized modes of communication among coworkers. Business partners will commonly use one of these methods to communicate. Across all generations, texting is also embraced and welcomed within the business realm. The “Save” icon in any Microsoft product is an example demonstrating how much technology has changed over the years. If you ask an employee about what the “Save” icon is, many of them will not understand your question and simply say back to you, “Save?” Some of us will recognize that the “Save” icon is an image of a floppy disk, which was a commonly used storage medium from the 1970s to 1990s. While computers have been around for a long time, the methods of saving information have changed dramatically as well. We used to have floppy disks, CD-ROMs, and USB thumb drives, and now everything can be saved automatically into the cloud. These changes have impacted how we communicate to our teams and clients. Instead of submitting a hardcopy proposal or a CD-ROM with workpapers, we can grant clients guest access to a shared site, where they can review our documents. Regardless of technological method, make sure your communication is professional, respectful, and courteous.

The graphic below shows how much communication modes and technology have changed over the past 50 years. Generational representation is also reflected in this graphic to show three people who have learned to keep up with the times and one of which that did not even know a world before texting existed.



As more Federal agencies and companies move to a remote working environment, especially in the face of COVID-19 challenges, it is important for everyone to realize they may be communicating with someone from an entirely different generation, state, and state of mind. For anyone, the key to effective communication is patience and over-communicating. The tips listed below should allow for effective and courteous communication:

  • Request feedback to ensure the misunderstanding does not interfere with the end result
  • Do not assume your interpretation was their intention
  • Stay true to yourself and communicate in a way that is professional, respectful, and your version of courteous.

This publication is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional advice or services. Readers should first consult with a professional before acting with regard to the subjects mentioned herein. 

Kearney & Company, P.C. (Kearney) is a Certified Public Accounting (CPA) firm that is exclusively focused on providing accounting and consulting services to the Federal Government.