…musings on communication issues across generational divides
I recently stumbled on a tweet from a guy who appeared to be in his late 20s, early 30s at the most? He had tweeted about a new intern who had contacted him via chat and he was shocked that she had referred to him and his boss by name. This was not the first time I had seen someone express shock at being called by his/ her first name by someone presumably younger so I was not surprised.
Why do conversations like this appear to come up more frequently these days? It’s not like these issues have never existed but once upon a time, people knew exactly how to address people in the workplace: the default standard was to take a formal stance except otherwise stated. Even though the Nigerian work environment leans heavily towards the Western business culture of adopting the first name basis, many people knew that this was not always the default mode so they would tread with caution. In some organisations, you would find bosses who have no problem with subordinates calling them by name irrespective of the age gap. Now, this is largely not typical with many of our indigenous Nigerian and dare I say, African cultures so how did it come to be?
The culture of addressing people by their first names presupposes that you have some level of relationship with the person you are speaking with before assuming they would be comfortable with you addressing them by name. It was probably adopted in the Nigerian business environment as more global companies came into the country together with their employees from foreign cultures. It would also have been a means of instituting some form of egalitarianism so employees could find it easier to communicate amongst themselves irrespective of their cultures and also as a means of de-emphasising age differences. Defeating culture, however, regarding an issue like seniority, which in some societies is a pivotal aspect of their culture, is a tough one.
So, how did people especially leaders and older employees adapt to this? I do wonder but I can assume that some had probably worked abroad and as they were already accustomed to this, it was not an issue for them. Some may have wanted to feel like yuppies and got with the programme, and then the rest, who would have been uncomfortable with the idea of being called their first names (by people they could give birth to), had to acculturate till they eventually adapted.
People who probably struggled with adapting to operating on a first name basis may have never truly adapted. In some cases, you find that no one calls them by their first name, rather they have company nicknames or terms that people use to address them in place of their first name. The most obvious is either retaining their titles (Dr, Mr, Mrs, etc) together with their first names or the use of “Oga” for men which means boss or Madam for women. The higher level of this usage is when the person’s first name, a shortened form of their name, or their nickname follows the use of either Oga or Madam eg: Madam “B”. Now to be fair to some of these people, they may not have demanded these nicknames, rather it could be because their subordinates could not imagine calling them by their first name so they had to improvise, and the names stuck.
I recently sat in an interview with a client. The Managing Director, female, and the Deputy Managing Director, male, and I interviewed a guy in his mid-30s. At some point during the interview, he referred to myself and the Deputy Managing Director as “bro” and he further went ahead and used some slang (specifically “for shizzle” when he wanted to say “for sure”). I was honestly shocked because I didn’t expect that someone his age would get informal in an interview, it wasn’t something I was accustomed to. In my experience, you put your best foot forward at an interview even if you know the panelists and that includes addressing them formally.
I had a discussion with the MD & DMD after the interview and they were as surprised as I was at the candidate’s informality. The MD was ready to excuse it as youthfulness but I believed that a guy in his mid-30s should know better. I noted that he had called me “bro” before the interview, the first time I had spoken with him over the phone but I didn’t think it would be a pattern and so I had overlooked it.
Now that we have at least four generations in the workplace, a lot of the previous norms and ordinances will continually be challenged especially by the younger generations. Imagine a 20 something-year-old employee challenging the decisions of a 40 something-year-old! The younger employee would believe that she is just expressing her opinions regarding a matter while the older one would be sure her authority is being challenged.
Overall, we must understand that expressing mutual respect for one another is very important. Professionally speaking, I had learnt to always err on the side of caution before taking liberties, and I usually expect that behaviour from others, however, this has not been the case in recent times. We must learn to understand that many of the guides we assume are commonplace are not so with others, and we should be willing to share our perspectives and offer guidance whilst also being open to contrary opinions. We can ease unnecessary stress if we all believe the best at first and give the benefit of the doubt, and that is the way I see things today.